Veteran Aetna attorney named new municipal electric consumer advocate

Hartford — The attorney appointed Monday as the new municipal electric energy consumer advocate will be a strong voice for ratepayers and bring new transparency, confidence and “a certain comfort level” to ratepayers of the state's lone energy cooperative, legislators said Monday in applauding the appointment.

Bill Kowalski of Durham, a former attorney in the state Office of Consumer Counsel and a recently retired 25-year senior counsel at Aetna, was named Monday to the position recently created by the legislature to bring more state oversight to the Connecticut Municipal Electric Energy Cooperative.

State Consumer Counsel Elin Swanson Katz announced the appointment of Kowalski during a news conference Monday, but the attorney learned of his appointment at the end of October and has started meeting with officials at CMEEC and its six member utilities. The law gives Kowalski a budget of $70,000, which includes his travel, salary and other associated expenses, in the first year and $50,000 in following years, funded by “all municipal energy cooperatives” in the state.

Kowalski has a background in both financial matters and in consumer advocacy, Katz said, giving him the areas of expertise needed to deal with complex utility issues.

“I was particularly interested in that financial expertise because I think it’s very useful in this position,” Katz said, “because utility matters involve finances and accounting, and you’re going to have to have some real diligence in digging into these matters and understanding the utility financials.”

She also cited his background in consumer advocacy when he worked at the Office of Consumer Counsel and at Aetna later in his career.

The position was created in response to public outcry a year ago over CMEEC having hosted lavish trips to the Kentucky Derby for dozens of senior cooperative staff, board members, public officials and invited guests from 2013 to 2016. The trips cost a total of $1.02 million over four years, money that otherwise would have been placed into member utilities’ rate stabilization funds.

The new legislation also called for a five-year forensic audit of CMEEC’s finances, a process expected to be completed by April, Kowalski said Monday. The law also gave each of the six municipalities belonging to CMEEC, including Norwich and Groton City, a direct appointee to the CMEEC board of directors, which had consisted of members from the municipal utilities’ commissioners.

Kowalski does not yet have an official contact number or email, but can be contacted through the Office of Consumer Counsel until Jan. 1. He will work from his home in Durham — a town not part of the CMEEC system — he said, and will meet with municipal officials, utility commissions and CMEEC member utilities ratepayers in their respective cities and towns.

He has been gathering background information and has met with CMEEC CEO Drew Rankin and CMEEC General Counsel Robin Kipnis, a meeting arranged by Katz. He will tour CMEEC facilities on Dec. 11, he said.

“I look forward to serving CMEEC consumers in the roll of municipal electric consumer advocate,” Kowalski said, “and welcome the opportunity to assist in bringing more transparency to CMEEC operations and functions.”

Katz said because utilities are monopolies and their customers are “a captive audience,” it’s important to have an independent advocate to bring transparency, accountability and “consumer voices” to the system to ensure ratepayers have confidence in the system. Municipal utilities and CMEEC are not governed by the state Public Utilities Regulatory Authority.

Several state legislators who represent CMEEC member cities and towns attended Monday’s news conference and praised the appointment of Kowalski.

State Sen. Heather Somers, R-Groton, who lobbied strongly for the law changes to strengthen oversight of CMEEC, said Kowalski is an “excellent choice” for the new position. She also praised what she called a strong bipartisan effort to revise the 1975 law that created CMEEC in strengthening state oversight.

Separately, Somers sent a letter to CMEEC CEO Rankin requesting that CMEEC submit a detailed approved 2018 budget to the legislature as required in the new law. She also seeks Rankin’s employment contract and all compensation “monetary and nonmonetary” along with any bonuses he may be receiving.

State Sen. Paul Formica, R-East Lyme, a co-chairman of the legislature’s Energy and Technology Committee, called the consumer advocate a “good step” moving forward in providing state oversight of CMEEC in an effort to bring electric rates down for member utilities’ customers.

State Rep. Kevin Skulczyck, R-Griswold, former first selectman in the town that includes a CMEEC member, the Jewett City Department of Public Utilities, said because of the changes in state law, ratepayers should have confidence that they will be getting the best deal in their utility rates.

“This establishes or re-establishes a certain comfort level with the ratepayers who are serviced by the power companies that represent CMEEC,” said state Rep. Kevin Ryan, D-Montville, whose district includes Norwich.

c.bessette@theday.com

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