Norwich Public Utilities GM John Bilda to retire in 2019
Norwich — Norwich Public Utilities General Manager John Bilda announced Tuesday he plans to retire in 2019 once a successor is chosen after a national search.
Bilda, 54, who has been at the center of controversies in recent years, has served as NPU general manager since 2006 and worked for NPU his entire 30-year career. He made it official during an employee meeting Tuesday morning after having discussed a general intention to retire for the past several months with the Board of Public Utilities Commissioners and Chairwoman Grace Jones.
"It's best for me in my career and in my life,” Bilda said Tuesday. “I’m eligible for retirement. I spent my entire career here and I have my health. I want to do the best for me and the organization.”
NPU will work with a consultant on a national search, and Bilda said he will remain through the transition, which is expected to take several months. His current salary is $198,000.
Jones said Tuesday the process will start with a review of Bilda’s job description. The board should select a search consulting firm within the next month.
Jones said she strongly supports conducting a national search for the top position, saying NPU “has gotten to be extremely complex.”
Bilda, a Norwich native and resident, thanked the hundreds of NPU employees he has worked with over the past 30 years. He said he will leave the utility in a strong position, with upgraded infrastructure, a well-trained staff equipped to handle major emergencies and a sound financial standing. NPU currently has 145 employees.
“NPU has never been stronger than it is today,” Bilda said in his retirement announcement. “By any measure, in terms of operations and reliability, our financial condition and our engagement in the community, and our public and employee safety performance, NPU today is light years ahead of the place where I first came to work so many years ago.”
Without offering specifics, Bilda said he plans to remain active in the community and said his business and skills can be put to good use to help Norwich grow.
Through much of Bilda’s tenure, NPU enjoyed a strong reputation, with swift response to storm outages and other emergencies. Norwich was one of the first towns wholly restored to power following storms Irene in 2011 and Sandy in 2012. NPU crews have traveled the country, to the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico to restore power in storm-ravaged areas.
NPU also sent natural gas teams to Lawrence, Mass., following the gas explosions and fires in recent weeks.
Bilda often attended national conferences on utilities issues, and locally he was tapped to serve dually as city manager and NPU general manager for a year from February 2016 to February 2017.
That all changed in 2016 with a series of public controversies that erupted and continue. Revelations that the Connecticut Municipal Electric Energy Cooperative hosted lavish trips to the Kentucky Derby for four years from 2013 through 2016 for top staff, board members, guests and political leaders prompted ethics violations, state law changes and calls by Alderman William Nash for Bilda to resign.
The trips collectively cost $1.02 million, and Bilda, who was serving as CMEEC board vice chairman, and his wife, Debra Bilda, attended the trips all four years.
Ethics complaints were filed against Bilda and four other Norwich officials who attended the 2016 derby trip. An FBI investigation launched into CMEEC and its member utilities includes the trips, finances and bid practices. The FBI investigation is ongoing, with at least one new subpoena issued in March.
The Norwich Ethics Commission found trip participants in violation of the city ethics code. At first defiant in rejecting claims of ethical misconduct — Bilda stormed out of one ethics hearing — Bilda issued a tearful public apology in September 2017 and donated the entire $15,000 cost of the trip for him and his wife to a fuel assistance fund.
Separately, Bilda also led an internal investigation and $35,000 settlement paid by NPU in 2016 to an NPU employee who had filed a sexual harassment complaint against then-utilities commission Chairman James Sullivan.
A new issue emerged three weeks ago, when the AFCME Council 4 union representing NPU supervisors filed three state labor complaints against Bilda, alleging he threatened the union president and negotiated a high-level position with a supervisor without following contractual procedures.
Bilda said Tuesday the controversies were part of any leadership position, and he tried to learn from those experiences.
“With a job like this, there’s always going to be some controversies,” Bilda said Tuesday. “I make sure the way I run my life, I try to make it a learning process. Anything I may be criticized for before, I will learn from going forward.”
During the height of the Kentucky Derby controversies and The Day’s FOI complaint seeking details of the sexual harassment settlement, Bilda took a month-long medical leave from December 2017 to January 2018, resuming his duties following his leave.
NPU has grown during Bilda’s tenure and looks to expand further. Bilda said he is most proud of keeping utility rates competitive while returning more than $100 million in revenue to the city’s general fund during his 13-year leadership.
The city-owned utility provides electricity, natural gas, water and sewer to Norwich. NPU also has the natural gas franchise for Preston and a new arrangement to provide natural gas to the Route 82 section of Bozrah.
NPU water lines extend into portions of Preston, Bozrah, Montville, Lebanon, Franklin, Sprague, Lisbon and Mohegan Sun. Norwich sewer lines run into portions of Lisbon, Preston, Franklin and soon into Bozrah.
NPU also provides utilities to the former Norwich Hospital property in Preston, where Mohegan Gaming & Entertainment plans a $400 million to $600 million development. Because NPU historically provided electricity to the former state hospital, NPU can compete for electrical service for the project, Bilda said.
Bilda said the NPU profile should make Norwich attractive for general manager applicants nationwide and locally.
“NPU is recognized across the nation as a very well-run utility,” Bilda said. “Southeastern Connecticut and even New England is a very attractive place for someone to come along. There certainly are a couple of strong local candidates who I believe will be interested in the job.”
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