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United against Unitil

By Nick Mallard,

FITCHBURG -- Two years after the devastating ice storm of 2008, Central Massachusetts residents are still speaking up for change.

Nearly two-dozen protesters gathered outside of Unitil Corp.'s offices on John Fitch Highway Sunday afternoon, despite a persistent, driving rain. Those who came together did so to protest not only the way the ice storm's aftermath was handled, but how the utility company has continued to conduct its business.

Lining the sidewalk with signs, protesters received positive feedback in the form of motorists honking their horns in support. An impending rate increase has left those already annoyed with the company in a furor.

Unitil protest in Fitchburg 121210
Area residents vent their frustration against Unitil Corp. during Sunday's rally in front of company offices on John Fitch Highway in Fitchburg. From left are Jacquelyn Poisson, of Fitchburg; Harry Clark, of Fitchburg; Dennis Herrick, of East Hampstead, N.H.; Kara Clark, of Lunenburg; and Rick Marchand, of Townsend.

"Unitil is going to be raising rates. They've already put in a notice of intent to file," said Cathy Clark, a Lunenburg resident and organizer of the group Get Rid of Unitil.

Clark said Sunday's rally was to show people that a difference is obtainable, through state bills supporting municipal electric utility choices.

"We're trying to make a point by doing this on the anniversary of the ice storm," Clark noted. "I think at this juncture, we realize the one way we can improve rates and service is through the Mass Muni Choice bill. We want that to happen. We want our legislators to see that we're still impacted.

"I think people become indifferent. They lack the belief that things can happen. Once they see that there is something that can help us, they're more inclined to get on the bandwagon."

Many protesters said the company's alleged upcoming rate increase was another slap in the face of a region with no choices.

Patrick Mehr, of the Lexington Electric Utility Committee, said supporting a municipal electric choice ruling would do nothing but help Unitil, though he says the company remains stringently opposed.

"If Unitil and any of the other companies are so convinced that they're providing good service, they should in fact support this legislation," Mehr said. "What they're doing right now, lobbying against it, is like Ford Motor Company supporting legislation to shut down Toyota and Chrysler and GM. They're basically spending money from ratepayers to defend their monopoly. To me, it's a clear signal that they're not sure they can provide good service at an attractive rate."

The protest didn't go unnoticed. Unitil Media Relations Manager Alec O'Meara was present, discussing with protesters their concerns and what the utility had for plans.

"These folks have an absolute right to come out and express their opinion," O'Meara said. "I'm here to answer any questions they might have. I don't know that I'll be able to change any minds or opinions, but what we're trying to do is be available. We're trying to change minds by keeping the lights on."

Even with an upfront approach, some protesters found it hard to get over the treatment of the ice storm two years ago and an impending increase in rates.

"There was a limb down in my neighborhood and there was no effort by Unitil to come out, even after multiple calls. If they fix that one wire, we probably all would have had power," said Townsend resident Rick Marchand, who was without power for 10 days. "They gave us no help. It could have been a day, could have been a month, but they never said anything. And now they want us to pay more for their services."