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Lunenburg selectmen back petition to oust Unitil

By Dan Magazu
Posted: 01/07/2009

LUNENBURG -- The selectmen on Tuesday publicly threw its support behind a petition to remove Unitil as the town's utility provider that has been signed by more than 3,000 residents since the Dec. 11 ice storm.

"I personally support the petition," said Tom Alonzo, chairman of the Board of Selectmen.
"It basically asks if you favor investigating alternatives to Unitil, which is something we are already doing."

Lunenburg resident Cathy Clark created the petition and plans on hand- delivering it to Gov. Deval Patrick's office in Boston later this month. Clark has gathered signatures during two protests in the center of town as well as online.

"We lived through this as well," Selectman David Matthews said. "I was one of the lucky ones because my power was only out for nine days. I think that's ridiculous. The more I think about it, I just get angry. I think it's wonderful Cathy Clark is leading this petition drive and I encourage everyone to sign it."

The board's comments came after Hickory Hills resident Kim Thomas asked the board where it stood with regards to the petition during the public comment portion of the meeting.

"I want to know if the town is behind the citizens," Thomas said. "There is no excuse for Unitil's poor response. I was without power for 12 days."

Alonzo said the grassroots effort by the residents will be important when the state's Department of Public Utilities begins its investigation into Unitil's response to the ice storm in the coming weeks.

"It's important during this investigation that residents stay active with their grassroots effort," Alonzo said.

The board also voted to issue a letter to the Department of Public Utilities stating its frustration with Unitil's response.

A handful of residents turned out for the public forum portion of the meeting to talk about Unitil.

Resident Carolyn McCarthy asked the board to consider supporting state bill H3319, which is expected to make it easier for towns to establish a municipal light authority.

"My family suffered through this ordeal for 10 days," McCarthy said. "We need a change and just the threat of being able to establish our own utility may help."

Lunenburg resident Mike Clark suggested the board look to hire a consultant to help it explore the possibility of creating its own municipal electric company.

"We've been able to implement townwide sewers, municipal water, and we are currently tackling school regionalization," Clark said. "This might also be something we could do."
Board members said they will investigate the state bill.

Clark also said he is concerned about the number of low limbs that continue to hang into the streets due to the ice storm.

"We have to get them cleared from the trees," Clark said. "I keep one eye on the trees and one eye on the road as I'm driving these days. They could cause serious damage to a car or serious personal injury if one them falls and lands on the roof of a vehicle."

Town Manager Kerry Speidel said the town has already paid upward of $100,000 to have crews clear the limbs. She said crews continue to work on the problem.

"My guess is there is at least another $100,000 worth of work to do," Speidel said.

In other business:

Unitil will have two utility crews stationed at the town's Public Safety Building on Massachusetts Avenue today to deal with potential power outages from an expected ice storm, Speidel said.

A total of 63 crews will be immediately available to serve Lunenburg, Fitchburg, Townsend and Ashby if serious outages occur, according to a letter Speidel received from Unitil Tuesday afternoon.

"Provisions are in place to request additional crews from other New England utilities in the event of an extended operation," the letter states.

"It appears they have learned something from the last experience," Speidel said. "They have certainly been more responsive today than they have been in the past."

Residents who need to report an outage today should call Unitil at (888) 301-7700. Unitil will open a centralized Emergency Operations Center at 7 a.m. Wednesday to provide direct communication with town officials.