A Monday morning meeting between West Hartford town officials and CL&P representatives ended in an expletive-laden shouting match as thousands of West Hartford residents remained without power on Day 10 of the aftermath of the devastating October snowstorm.
CL&P's Vice President of Operations Ken Bowes was brought in Monday for the first time to meet with West Hartford's Emergency Operations team in a closed-door meeting in the Town Manager's office. Along with liaisons Michael Haeflich and Kevin Prestage, Bowes was tasked with providing updated information about the status of West Hartford's power restoration.
"We had a very difficult conversation, with a lot of emotion at the table, especially from [Public Works Director] John Phillips who asked if CL&P's tree crews could cut other branches during their clean-up effort, not just those which are sitting on CL&P wires," Mayor Scott Slifka said.
According to Slifka, Phillips exclaimed, "We need your help to make our streets safe," and was met with the response from Bowes, "We'll take it back to corporate." Phillips believed he was asking CL&P to remove branches that were hanging on wires, without regard to which wires they were on, so that they would not create dangerous situations by falling to the ground or cut power by later falling on power lines.
Both Slifka and Town Manager Ron Van Winkle described the exchange as heated, with Phillips urging CL&P to understand, "This is an emergency, a town-wide emergency, and when it's an emergency, we all step up and help."
At the conclusion of the meeting, Slifka said that he and Van Winkle were asked if Phillips had the authority to speak for the town. According to Slifka, Bowes said, "That man committed to reimbursing CL&P for the branches we cut down."
That was the last straw for Slifka, who responded with a stream of expletives. "CL&P's response was not 'we'll do whatever we can,' it was 'we'll do it if you pay us," Slifka said later. "They are liars who care only about the bottom line."
Haeflich later called the incident a major misunderstanding and provided background information about how Phillips' comments had been misconstrued. Bowes, according to Haeflich, thought that Phillips was asking CL&P to do a full tree pruning of West Hartford, including trees that are nowhere near power lines. "As bizarre as that sounds, he apparently gets requests like that all the time," Haeflich said.
Bowes' response, once he was told what Phillips was asking for, was, "We already do that; we clean it up if it's on a wire," Haeflich said.
Van Winkle, who also spoke with Haeflich several hours after the meeting, said, "That's just another example of poor communication. We've asked them to do a sweep of the streets for several days. They weren't willing to do that before."
The potential danger presented from branches remaining on wires was a major factor in Superintendent Karen List's decision to on Tuesday, Nov. 8, for the seventh day in a row.
Slifka's anger was tempered after he also spoke with Haeflich later Monday. "The thing is that now they are going to give us what we wanted. They will make the streets safe."
However, Slifka said that this never should have been a topic that was misunderstood. "This is just symptomatic of what we have seen for the past 10 days," he said.
Slifka does not blame liaisons Haeflich and Prestage, who he says are "doing everything they can to get us information. They 'get it,' and that's why this issue got fixed."
However, Slifka cautioned that he wants to see results. "We're in the 'trust and verify' stage, but there's still no trust. We're talking about results. I don't want to waste time berating them. We shouldn't have even had to ask," he said.
"The problem is that upper management continues to be clueless. They don't appreciate the extreme toll that this has taken on the town."
When asked later if he still believed that CL&P executives are "liars who care only about the bottom line," Slifka said, "I will continue to believe that until I see a change."
At 4 p.m. Monday, CL&P's outage map still indicates 33 percent (9,384 customers) in West Hartford still without power.