HARTFORD, CT — David Silverstone, a 71-year-old West Hartford attorney, came out of semi-retirement to represent customers of the Metropolitan District Commission, the Hartford region’s water and sewer authority.
Flanked by three legislators Thursday at the Legislative Office Building, Consumer Counsel Elin Swanson Katz announced that Silverstone was her selection to serve in the new position, paid for by the MDC, starting Jan. 1. Silverstone has experience as a public advocate — he was the first person to hold Katz’ current job, serving as Connecticut’s first Consumer Counsel from 1974 to 1977.
Silverstone’s new position was created by the passage of HB 6008 in May following a contentious 2016 agreement between the MDC, the town of Bloomfield, and the Niagra Bottling company.
The MDC, which serves eight towns, and the town of Bloomfield agreed to allow Niagra to build a plant in town to draw millions of gallons per week from the the public water supply for the commercial purpose of selling bottled water. They passed an ordinance to allow, for the first time in the district, the discounted sale of large volumes of public water for commercial purposes.
The agreement included a $4.9 million tax abatement and a 19 percent discount while consumers were facing increased fees for infrastructure improvements during an extended drought. The process was marked by a lack of transparency and led to the creation of a grassroots advocacy group called SaveOurWaterCT.org.
SaveOurWaterCT.org mobilized a few thousand residents and later produced a slate of six Democratic candidates who mounted primary challenges against Bloomfield’s party-endorsed slate of Democrats, sweeping all of them off the ballot earlier this year. All six were later elected in this week’s election, winning control of the Bloomfield Town Council.
It is against this backdrop of consumer and environmental activism and new corporate interest in Connecticut’s water supply that Silverstone will begin his tenure as the MDC’s first Independent Consumer Advocate. As a West Hartford resident, he is also an MDC customer.
As things stand today, Silverstone said there are no state limits on commercial draws on public water, even in drought conditions. SB 422, a bill that would have prioritized residential water customers over commercial bottling companies during drought conditions, was passed by the state Senate in April but eventually died on the House calendar.
“I’m excited to do this,” Silverstone said. “I’m a West Hartford resident and have been for the last 40 years, Hartford and West Hartford … I’m hoping I can hit the ground running.”
Why take on the task at age 71?
“I followed the story, obviously, with Save Our Water, followed the legislation as it was going through the process. And I looked at the final result and said, gee, this would be something I’d like to do,” Silverstone said. “The parameters of it sort of fit my situation very nicely. Attorney in private practice. A pretty good background in this area. And I just thought it was another opportunity — this sounds a little corny, but it’s another opportunity to provide public service to give back on a critical issue.”
Silverstone said that when he started as a consumer advocate in the 1970s, “if you had said water was the big issue, people would have laughed at you at the time.”
The issue then was oil — concerns about the price of oil, the oil embargo.
“And that was really the driver that created the Consumer Counsel’s office — the impact of oil on electric grids,” he said.
“Today’s issue, not just in Connecticut but frankly worldwide, is, there’s a finite amount of water,” Silverstone said. “What are we going to do with it? Who should be using it? How do we protect it? How do we charge for it? These are issues, throughout the world, that are top of people’s minds. It’s an opportunity to stay involved with a critical issue of our day.”
After serving as Connecticut’s first Consumer Counsel, he later served as the Consumer Advocate for the South Central Connecticut Regional Water Authority (RWA) from 1980 to 1989. He was president of the RWA from 2001 to 2008, and then worked part-time on economic development issues for the Science Park Development Corporation in New Haven.
According to Katz, Silverstone’s salary is to be paid by the MDC and will be up to $70,000 in his first year and then up to $50,000 in subsequent years.
Sen. Beth Bye, D-West Hartford, and Reps. Derek Slap, D-West Hartford, and Tom Delnicki, R-South Windsor, were among the legislators who championed the legislation. All three were in attendance at Thursday’s announcement.
“Those advocates, literally, ran against a local town council and said, ‘This is not OK. You were not transparent enough’ and the entire town council slate was turned over in Bloomfield,” Bye said Thursday. “These are issues, issues of water, that are very core to residents concerned. It’s a real asset in Connecticut. We need to think about how we’re protecting it for Connecticut’s future, for economic development purposes, for public health purposes, and for our environment.”
Judy Allen, a West Hartford resident who volunteers with SaveOurWaterCT.org, was also in attendance Thursday. Asked if she thought transparency would have eased ratepayers concerns during the Niagra debacle, she nodded in agreement and said that not only is transparency necessary, but additional state protections are needed.
“We need to make sure we protect that resource in a drought,” Allen said. “We can’t count on it being there in the future unless we take care of it.”
Silverstone said he plans to get up to speed over next two months before his official start in the job. He will not be a voting member of the MDC’s board — which Katz said was something they considered. But she said they didn’t want the independent advocate to answer to the MDC.
Pending approval of a new water plan, Silverstone said the state Department of Public Health has final authority in drought emergencies to cut off access to water resources in stages, based on various types of water usage and an established list of priorities.
Bye said that established list of priorities is what’s up for consideration.
“When the Save Our Water people started to examine this, they realized how low the water has to go before industrial users are impacted and we did try to get in the legislation that commercial water bottlers were slightly different than say, a manufacturing plant,” Bye said. “We tried with legislation to address it differently but we were unable.”
Bye continued: “The water plan is out there now. It’s really a chance for people to go out and say ‘we think this should be considered differentially than other types of manufacturing.’ I think the average citizen would be shocked to hear how low [the reservoir] has to get before a water bottler would need to stop drawing the water.”
News conference announcing Attorney David Silverstone as the first Independent Consumer Advocate for Metropolitan District Commission – the Hartford area water authority
(Sorry for the camera movement – this was also a new equipment test)
Posted by CTNewsJunkie.com on Thursday, November 9, 2017