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Personal attacks endanger governance

By MATTHEW SHAFNER

Publication: The Day

Published January 02. 2013 4:00AM

Recently we have seen our local citizen democracy at work - at its best and at its worst. Towns and cities all over our state and country function through boards, commissions, selectmen, RTMs and councils by unpaid volunteers who commit countless hours of their time and energy to help their communities. The only thing they receive for their efforts is rare praise if things go well and much abuse if things turn out badly.

The City of Groton was formed more than 100 years ago as a borough for residents along the Thames River. They wanted electricity and a dependable public water supply. The rest of the Town of Groton, consisting mostly of farmers, had no need for such modern luxuries. So Groton Utilities was founded and was governed by five citizens, including the mayor (then called warden of the borough) as directors to oversee the professional staff and provide policy for its operations and planning.

How has the Electric Division performed? Our rates are significantly lower than those paid to Connecticut Light & Power by our neighbors and still a healthy profit is returned to the City of Groton each year, keeping the tax rate low. The utility is lean and efficient. After Storm Sandy most of us had our power back within 24 hours, while our neighbors outside the city waited in the dark and cold.

How has the Water Division done? Our water rates are lower than those of any community around us. The division has had the foresight to invest in future water resources, a result of which was the ability to provide ourselves and our neighbors with clean, fresh water, helping their development - and ours as well.

How has Bozrah Light & Power done? Since we took it over we have been able to share our expertise to the economic advantage of both Bozrah and the City of Groton.

How did the Manitock water enterprise do? Not as well as anticipated, but it sold for a $1 million profit. All these success stories were managed by the Groton Utilities Commission, directed by Groton Utilities volunteers giving of their free time. I don't recall anyone saying to the commissioners over the years: "Good job! Thank you!"

Which brings us to Thames Valley Communications. Remember how it started. It was a bipartisan effort initiated over 10 years ago. At a public hearing attended by more than 200 citizens in April 2003 the support of TVC was virtually unanimous. The sole cable provider at that time had poor customer relations. Channel 3 was barely viewable, service was poor, and complaints were rampant. TVC could supply superior cable with local providers, and also Internet and phone service at very competitive rates. And it did.

Then, along came a recession, additional competition and new technology. The poor financial result was not caused by any evil intent. Hindsight might be 20-20, but foresight is sometimes a lucky guess.

Which brings me back to where we started. Volunteers for public service appropriately should expect their decisions to be subject to public criticism. But, if personal abuse and invective is heaped upon dedicated volunteers, who then will be willing to serve not only on utility commissions but on zoning boards, parks and recreation, assessment boards, economic development, police review boards, ethics committees, library boards, etc.? And, what about elected officials, paid and unpaid? Who will run for public office when the civil discourse descends into personal attacks and unwarranted, irrational recriminations? Let those people, with their obvious energy, come forward to share their wisdom and foresight for the community.

Our communities depend on the services of such citizen volunteers in order to function properly. It is not a perfect system, but I have not seen a better one.

Matthew Shafner is the attorney for the City of Groton.

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