BERLIN – The week the Town Council issued a statement saying the group would begin considering disbanding the Berlin Utility Commission. Over the next three town meetings the council will hear first and second readings on the issue and take public comment before making a final decision, but the intent of the move is clearly aimed at eliminating the BUC.
“None of this is about personal disagreement,” Mayor Gee Williams said. “I’m sure it will come as a disappointment to some and a relief to others.”
After a meeting earlier this year aimed at easing the often-contentious relationship between the council and the resident-staffed BUC, the council, Williams said, began to consider ways it could better relate to the commission. Given that they were unable to find one the move for disbandment was the next step.
Williams said he contacted BUC chairman Erik Quisgard before sending a letter to each of the BUC members and then issuing the press release about the decision. During the conversation, he said, Quisgard expressed disappointment but was cordial and told Williams about some financial concerns that needed to remain on the council’s radar.
Quisgard confirmed his disappointment in an e-mail:
“I am disappointed with the apparent decision of mayor and council to ‘disband’ the BUC. The volunteers I have served with on the BUC have always shared the simple goal of providing town ratepayers and taxpayers the cheapest and best possible utility services.
“If our work or recommendations (or that of those before us) have been at odds with the strategies and priorities of the mayor and council it is because those strategies and priorities have not always been shared with the BUC. I would think more volunteer community involvement, not less, would be a good thing.”
Williams concurred about the necessity of finding the best and least expensive electric rates and emphasized that much of that duty has already been shifted to experts the town is already paying to consult on matters.
“Both the electric and the water utility are so highly regulated,” Williams said. “The staff and the administration’s single biggest efforts have been to try and get the rates down.”
Because the BUC advises on two of the most heavily-regulated town departments, Williams said that to provide the kind of fluid government needed to comply and react in addition to struggling with the BUC’s often adversarial visions, had become too difficult.
“It’s a cumbersome situation for everyone,” Williams said. “We just feel we have to move on.”
BUC member Susan Beaman was as displeased by the news as Quisgard was. “By summarily announcing the abolishment of the Berlin Utility Commission, I see that our town government not only lacks the skill and ability to seek reasoned compromise but exhibits an increasing unwillingness to share operational information with yet another citizen-based, town committee; thus dividing it still further from those for which it was originally created to serve,” she said.
Since the dismantling will be subject to a council vote and allow for public comment, whether the BUC will actually be disbanded will likely depend on how rigorously the rest of the town residents feel it’s needed.
For his part, Quisgard didn’t see the point in lobbying the council to change its mind. “Even if we were successful we wouldn’t have a fruitful relationship,” he said. “The BUC needs the cooperation of the mayor and council to do its job.”