Connecticut Light & Power did one thing very well last week: the company turned many of its customers into angry crusaders for regulatory reform.
Could it really be possible that a big power company is this clumsy at communicating with the very people who must buy its product?
In West Hartford this week, when the electric company was refusing to tell town leaders what streets its crews were going to be working on, officials came up with their own improvised solution. Municipal leaders sent town police over to CL&P's staging area at Westfarms mall in the evening to ask the crews themselves where they would be heading to work the next day.
This isn't neurotic small town bureaucrats overreacting. This information is critical during an emergency, when fire and rescue personnel must know what streets are passable. Already, one elderly West Hartford woman without power died in a fire at her home this week.
So what did CL&P do when they found out West Hartford police were tracking down where crews were going to work?
They told their workers not to talk to the cops. Now there's a company that cares.
"We couldn't do a thing. We were fighting for six days. You couldn't get anything from them,'' said West Hartford Mayor Scott Slifka.
On Saturday afternoon, Slifka was trying to explain to a room of about 100 residents why nearly 70 percent of the town was still without power. "CL&P is hearing a lot about how it failed to communicate,'' he said.
Slifka's frustration about horrible communication is the same that I've heard in towns from Vernon to Simsbury to Hartland. CL&P Chief Operating Officer Jeffrey Butler stood before the cameras this week declaring that more crews were on the job, when they weren't (at least according to town officials). Butler blamed unexpected weather for his company's sluggish response, drawing howls from meteorologists. He blandly declared one day that there "have been issues."
The issues continue.
"We've just got to get better at communication,'' Butler said Saturday morning, before again reminding us that the storm was "an historic event."
This was on a day when Gov. Malloy declared that CL&P had "missed their own target" for restoring more service by Saturday morning. The governor is so unimpressed with CL&P's ability to communicate that he no longer bothers to remain in the room when Butler steps to the podium to speak at daily press briefings.
Communication "has been a disaster,'' said Simsbury First Selectman Mary Glassman Saturday afternoon.
"They'd tell us there are four crews in town and we'd say where are they,'' she said. "And then [CL&P] would say 'we don't know.'"
With platitudes and poor communication from CL&P, municipal officials such as Slifka are left try to explain it all to angry residents at emergency centers, on street corners and in late night phone calls.
"How are we going to hold CL&P accountable?'' Monica Papas, a West Hartford resident, asked Slifka during his question and answer session. "They have not delivered. How do we hold them accountable?"
Slifka explained to her that "the incompetence" he has witnessed this week "was shocking." He told her the story of CL&P executives telling its crews not to talk with local police. "I hope some heads will roll at CL&P. … There was a complete breakdown."
The good news is that on Saturday, nearly a full week after the storm, CL&P finally began sharing more information with towns. Slifka and Glassman said at least they can tell residents without power that there's a plan. Thousands of line and tree crews, combined with 500 members of the National Guard and local public works departments, were expected to make significant progress through the weekend.
But by stonewalling and inexplicably not sharing information for much of the week, CL&P can only blame itself as everyone, from mayors to sweet old ladies at the senior center, pile on.
"They have completely underestimated our population,'' said Shari Cantor, a West Hartford town council member who appeared with Slifka at the senior center on Saturday. "People are furious."