CMP may sue after City Council refuses to back off smart meter restrictions

Posted June 23, 2011, at 10:36 p.m.

BATH, Maine — After meeting about smart meters behind closed doors Wednesday night, the Bath City Council did not rescind its ordinance restricting implementation of the wireless electrical meters in the city.

The non-action sets the stage for a legal battle with Central Maine Power Co., representatives of which said the company would take the matter to court if the council refused to take the measure off the books.

CMP now has until July 1, 30 days after final passage of the city’s smart meter ordinance, to file a legal challenge.

John Carroll, CMP spokesman, reiterated the company’s position outside City Hall on Wednesday night after the council meeting ended.

“We’ve said all along we need to protect our rights,” he told reporters. “As long as the ordinance is in place, we plan to challenge the legality of it.”

Opponents of the wireless meters allege they interfere with wireless Internet and medical devices, and that the radio signals can cause health problems.

Power company officials and their supporters argue that the meters are no more dangerous than many other everyday items not similarly limited in Bath, such as cellphones and baby monitors.

While controversy surrounding the devices has bubbled up elsewhere in the state, Bath became the first Maine municipality to restrict implementation of the new meters within its borders. On June 1, the City Council gave second passage to an ordinance that would block installation of smart meters in Bath for 180 days unless individual homeowners grant prior permission.

CMP representatives have countered that the city has no authority over the matter, pointing out that the utility boxes are regulated by the Maine Public Utilities Commission and use of the airwaves is overseen by the Federal Communications Commission.

The power company has initial clearance from those entities to move forward with its smart meter program, although PUC approval could still be challenged. The state commission directed CMP to offer customers an “opt out,” in which property owners could pay extra fees to continue using meters that do not rely on the smart meter technology.

“The Bath ordinance simply is not needed to give customers in Bath the choice of whether or not to receive a Smart Meter, and indeed, will impose an obligation on Bath residents to pay the extra cost of a non-standard meter unless they affirmatively request what the PUC has determined is standard equipment,” wrote Jared des Rosiers, the Portland attorney representing CMP, in a letter to Bath City Solicitor Roger Therriault earlier this month.

“CMP strongly believes that the moratorium ordinance will not survive a court challenge based on state and federal preemption,” des Rosiers continued. “In the interest of avoiding the expense and effort of litigation, CMP accordingly urges the council to reconsider and rescind the moratorium ordinance immediately.”

The council’s agenda for Wednesday’s meeting did not list an item associated with the smart meters, but it did include an executive session to discuss a “legal matter.”

Councilor Kyle Rogers made a motion to discuss the matter in a public session, but withdrew his motion after Therriault urged the council not to talk about the city’s legal strategy in a forum where Carroll — in attendance Wednesday and representing the city’s potential opponent in court — could be “taking notes.”

“We need to talk candidly about the risk to the city, and about material I wouldn’t want to discuss in front of CMP,” Therriault told the council. “This is not a debate about [the merits of] smart meters any more. It’s a discussion about the council’s and city of Bath’s reaction to threatened litigation.”

When councilors emerged from the closed-door session, they held no public discussion and took no vote on the smart meter issue, effectively leaving the previously approved ordinance in place.

Council vice chairman David Sinclair, who proposed the moratorium initially, has argued during past meetings that the measure is necessary to protect Bath residents while concerns about the smart meters are further researched and potential PUC-level appeals play out.

See more news from The Times Record at http://www.timesrecord.com/.

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