Duarte may be on hot seat for reappointment to Groton utilities panel

Groton - The City Council is expected Monday to reappoint Paul Duarte to the Groton Utilities Commission, and Duarte said he's prepared for some clamoring in the audience.

"Most of them don't understand what people went through," said Duarte, who served on the commission during the sale of the failed cable venture Thames Valley Communications. "They don't understand that the company was making money. It just wasn't making enough."

Groton borrowed $34.5 million to build the cable network, a private subsidiary of Groton Utilities, to give residents a choice and ultimately turn a profit. Then the economy tanked, Comcast fought to keep its customers, and AT&T said it would move in. The small cable company lost millions, and the City Council was essentially forced to sell it.

The council affirmed the sale for $550,000 in January.

Duarte, who was appointed four years ago, said the sale was being discussed then. Most people don't understand that when you spend millions to build a cable network, you're in debt while you build the business, he added.

"And actually, some of that money got paid down," Duarte said. "The company continued to grow and progress. The problem was, it never reached the critical mass it needed to go over the top."

Duarte also said technology like the hand-held devices people have today didn't exist then, and weren't even imagined.

City Councilor Andrew Ilvento said Friday that Duarte, a former deputy mayor and city councilor, faces hard questions because he's the first commissioner to be reappointed.

"It's just bad timing, that's what it was. And I think Paul is going to get the brunt of it, because he came up for reappointment first," Ilvento said. "Everybody makes decisions as a group. It's not like Paul was making decisions any more than anyone else."

The City Council voted 5-1 on June 24, with Councilor Jay Dempsey against, to move Duarte's name forward for reappointment.

Dempsey could not be reached to comment Friday. But according to a draft of the meeting minutes, he said he opposed reappointment of anyone on the Groton Utilities Commission because it would send "the wrong message" to taxpayers.

During the last city election, Dempsey took issue with the company's financial losses and officials' failure to notify the public. The Democrat-turned-Republican was the top vote-getter in the race.

Duarte said he wants the job despite whatever criticism he faces. "We're doing a lot of great things," he said, adding that the utility is finishing an electrical upgrade to its entire franchise area. Groton Utilities supplies 50 percent of the town with electricity and two-thirds of the town with water, Duarte said.

"Groton Utilities is a $70 million business," City Mayor Marian Galbraith said. "You don't just throw people in. You want someone who has a knowledge."

Commissioners are appointed by the mayor to four-year terms subject to approval of the City Council.

The terms of utilities commissioners are staggered, according to City Clerk Debra Patrick. She said Commissioner Edward DeMuzzio's term appears to have ended in May 2012, but everyone continues to serve until they are told otherwise. Commissioner Bruce Fafard's term ends in May 2014 and Commissioner Shirley Dunbar-Rose's term ends in May 2015, Patrick said.

d.straszheim@theday.com

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