With hundreds of fewer utility linemen on the job, Connecticut will continue to be unprepared to keep the lights on for hundreds of thousands of people after storms like last weekend’s freak snowstorm, a union official told the Malloy administration’s top energy official when he received a long-awaited audience Wednesday.

In 1975, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 420 had 430 linemen working the state. Today it has 191. No wonder some of the more than 800,000 households that lost power last weekend might have to wait through Sunday to have the electricity turned back on.

That was the message imparted by Frank Cirillo, business manager for International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, to Department of Energy and Environmental Protection Commissioner Daniel C. Esty when the two had their long-awaited meeting Wednesday. They met in Waterbury at Cirillo’s headquarters.

Cirillo refused to come to Hartford for a meeting because he hadn’t had a shower in days, so Esty agreed to visit his offices in Waterbury. Luckily, Cirillo’s power came back on Tuesday evening so he could shower and shave for the meeting.

Cirillo tried twice to gain an audience with the Malloy administration after Hurricane Irene revealed similar problems. The administration blew him off. Gov. Dannel P. Malloy forwarded the letters to Esty, who never followed up. Esty claimed his staff got confused since a meeting with a different Frank Cirillo, a local Democratic Party boss, was already on the calendar. After the linemen union’s Cirillo blasted Malloy this week for being an “idiot” in ignoring the problem, Esty agreed to Wednesday’s meeting.

Meanwhile, the discussion statewide has quickly shifted from whether or not Connecticut Light & Power has enough linemen on the job, but rather why it doesn’t. Cirillo argues it doesn’t have enough regular staff, cutting costs dangerously low while boosting salaries to executives. CL&P denies that charge. Malloy said he wants to get to the bottom of a Hartford Courant report that CL&P stiffed outside contractors after Tropical Storm Irene in August, complicating efforts to bring them in this week.

Frank Cirillo described his morning meeting with Esty at the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers office in Waterbury as “respectful” and “productive,” but he remained skeptical anything will come of it.

Asked if he thought the meeting and attention to the staffing issue following the storm will make a difference, Cirillo said, “No.”

“I think they want the whole thing to go away until everything returns to business as usual,” Cirillo said.

He said storms happen and will continue to happen, while the work the linemen do hasn’t changed very much in the more than 100 years they’ve been doing it.

“I think what’s sad is that the state in general isn’t prepared,” Cirillo said.

But he found it hard to believe anything would change even after the October Nor’easter.

“Everybody is lining up to give CL&P a pass,” Cirillo said.

During Wednesday’s meeting Cirillo handed Esty information about Connecticut Light & Power staffing levels dating back to the 1970s, in addition to the increases in salaries of CL&P executives from 2004 until today.

“He seemed very receptive,” Cirillo said.

Esty didn’t disagree with Cirillo about the requirements for the job.

He said linemen have a very important perspective and the staffing issue along with how the state delivers electricity needs to be looked into.

“The sad reality is the electric distribution system hasn’t changed in 100 years,” Esty said. “Do we need to be more aggressive in trimming trees? Should we be investing in a more robust transmission system?”

He said these are all questions that need to be answered.

Later in the afternoon both Cirillo and Esty were on WNPR’s Colin McEnroe Show talking about the slow response to the storm that ravaged the north central portion of the state. 

During his appearance on the McEnroe show, Esty said he was unhappy and frustrated with the situation which has left 955,000 Connecticut Light & Power customers in the dark for four days.

Over the past few days, Esty has spent time talking with CL&P President and COO Jeffrey Butler about the situation, but “frankly I’ve got more questions than answers at this point,” he said.

Esty said he doubted the mutual assistance structure in place to call in crews from out of state was adequate to deal with as many outages as the state has seen after the storm.

“Only now are we getting to the scale of response I would have like to have seen on Sunday,” he told McEnroe.

The state does have the ability to push back against the utility and demand things are done better, he said. Trees are no doubt part of the problem.

CL&P, the Department of Transportation, and private property owners will all have to do a better job trimming trees to give the state a better chance of withstanding the storm, he said. The last time CL&P asked for a rate change, the Public Utilities Regulatory Authority provided the utility more funding than it asked for to increase tree trimming, he said.

PURA will likely conduct a review of CL&P’s response to the storm and Esty said he would be looking for ways to improve the robustness of the energy distribution system. One thing the state will need to assess is whether underground power lines are a feasible option, he said.