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Residents stage Unitil protest

By Dan Magazu,
Posted: 12/13/2009

SE Unitil protest
Linda Dube, left, and Muriel Healey, both of Fitchburg, brave the 30-degree weather to voice their opposition to Unitil across the street from Unitil headquarters on John Fitch Highway on Saturday.

FITCHBURG -- Lunenburg resident Lea McDonald still gets emotional when asked to recall the 12 days her family went without power following last December's ice storm.

"My husband is Mr. Christmas and we couldn't even put up a tree," McDonald said Saturday. "Talk about having your spirits broken. It was just awful."

McDonald and about 25 other residents braved freezing temperatures outside the offices of Unitil Corp. on John Fitch Highway in Fitchburg Saturday to protest the company's presence in the region on the one-year anniversary of last December's devastating ice storm.

"This is not just about the storm," said Lunenburg resident Cathy Clark, who organized the protest.
"People are fed up with paying enormous bills for poor service. We want to have a choice."

Lunenburg resident Mike Lazuka held signs during Saturday's protest along with his three children, Michaela, 12, Trinity, 9, and Noah, 7.

"We went two weeks without power," Lazuka said. "It was awful. But this is about more than the storm. This company charges absurd rates in an already economically depressed area. It hurts businesses and residents."

Michaela Lazuka said her family went through a difficult time during the power outages.

"It ruined Christmas," she said. "Our friends had to help us out."

Unitil has come under fire for its response to the storm, which left residents in Fitchburg, Lunenburg, Townsend, and Ashby without power for up to two weeks.

The state Department of Public Utilities issued a report last month chastising the company's performance and ordering them to undergo a management audit.

Gov. Deval Patrick also signed into law new legislation that increases the DPU's ability to sanction utility companies that don't adequately prepare for and respond to an emergency.

Several residents who attended Saturday's protest held signs urging the passage of a bill that would make it more feasible for communities to form their own municipal utility.

Lexington resident Patrick Mehr, a member of the Massachusetts Alliance for Municipal Electric Choice, has been fighting for passage of the bill since 2001.

Mehr said Saturday that a recent study showed that residents in the town of Littleton, which operates its own municipal utility, pay about $101 dollars for every 1,000 kilowatt-hours of energy, while residents served by Unitil pay around $187.

"This company's rates are enormous and they are not using the money to invest in the infrastructure," Mehr said. "They're using it to pad their pockets."

Clark said residents are still feeling the effects of the ice storm.

"I think the anger and disappointment with this company has grown since the storm," she said.

Lunenburg resident Jennifer Rahaim said Saturday that her family went without power for 15 days following the ice storm.

"I've just about had it with Unitil and that's why I'm out here today," Rahaim said. "We need to do something to get rid of this company."

Fitchburg resident Joan Mullahy said people's problems with Unitil go beyond the ice storm.

"They've had the highest rates and lousy service for years and years," Mullahy said. "Then they stick it in our face by handing out big bonuses to their executives while we suffer. It's like dealing with an absentee landlord."

Dennis Herrick drove down from New Hampshire to join in on Saturday's protest. Herrick has been a fierce critic of the company in the Granite State, and made headlines in October when he paid to have two planes fly over Unitil headquarters towing two banners. One banner read: "Bend over Unitil," and the other read: "Time for a good old NH spanking."

"I decided to come down today to support my friends here in Fitchburg," Herrick said.

Fitchburg City Councilors Kevin Starr and Marcus DiNatale and State Rep. Stephen DiNatale, D-Fitchburg, attended Saturday's protest. Fitchburg Mayor Lisa Wong was also expected to stop by during the afternoon.

"Last year's storm created a terrible burden for a lot of people in this city, but it also brought out the best in so many and made me really proud to be from Fitchburg," Starr said. "I have more positive memories than negative ones."

Clark said she was hoping for a better turnout during the rally.

She said the freezing temperatures and high winds likely caused a lot of people to stay home.

Unitil officials marked Saturday's anniversary by holding an emergency preparedness event with the Lunenburg Fire Department, according to Spokesperson Carol Valianti.