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Wednesday, May 14,2014

Bernero: BWL is ‘on me’

Mayor explains why he is standing by Lark as general manager. It’s not just loyalty.

by Mickey Hirten
The long knives are out for the Lansing Board of Water and Light´s general manager, J. Peter Lark.

Lansing Mayor Virg Bernero´s Community Review Team called for a culture change at the utility and doubted that Lark could manage it. The Lansing State Journal said in a long Sunday editorial that BWL needs new leadership and that Lark should resign. Four area legislators in an open letter called for changes in leadership and board oversight. It´s all bundled under the mantle of restoring public trust in BWL based, of course, on the supposition that “public trust” has been lost.

“My gut tells me that the public still trusts BWL and it´s my business to know what the public feels,” Bernero said of the Sturm und Drang surrounding publicly owned power company. “I´d like to know what this is based on. I don´t have any calls, no emails, no social media on this. Reliable, affordable service, that where it begins and ends.”

He is confident that problems at BWL — and Bernero acknowledges the problems with ice storm performance and the water treatment plant disaster — are being addressed and that in his six years as general manager, Lark has been good for ratepayers and good for Lansing. Of course, some of this is about Bernero, who as a fighter values loyalty and backing the players on his team. Lark plays on his team.

“I don´t throw away people,” Bernero said during an interview this week. “I believe in second chances. He (Lark) is an ideal candidate for this. He feels the pressure to get it right.”

Bernero said that the Community Review Team provided a road map for reforms at BWL, an outside look at what must be done to affect change. “This report will not die. But look at what they´ve already done: more boots on the street, tree trimming, changes in the OMS (outage management system).” He said that replacing Lark would require a national search, slowing down efforts to address problems and kill morale at the utility.

Said Bernero: “This is on me.”

Running a city like Lansing may seem the province of the mayor and City Council, but it is far more nu anced, and in Lansing the Board of Water and Light is an important ally advancing Bernero´s agenda. Lark helped Bernero realize two of the city´s most important development projects: the Accident Fund headquarters at the abandoned downtown Ottawa Power Station and the new BWL natural gas co-generation facility in REO Town.

Neither would have happened without a strong partner at BWL, and Bernero is grateful for the help. BWL agreed to relocate chillers in the old power plant even though they were fine where they were. Without this, Bernero said, the headquarters would not have been built. The new natural gas-fired generation facility didn´t have to be built in REO Town, he said. Now it´s the linchpin for the neighborhood´s revitalization.

“BWL´s been an economic development tool. The only way to help is with public money.”

From Bernero´s perspective, BWL is tightly woven into the fabric of Lansing, which is very different from how a large commercial utility like Consumers Energy relates to Okemos or Charlotte. BWL isn´t a standalone business supplying power and water. “It´s hometown power, hometown people,” Bernero said. He notes that its decision to replace aging coal-fired generators with green energy — natural gas — is why a municipal utility is different. It really listens, he said. “They got public input for the project. It was the citizen panel that pushed for the change from coal to natural gas.”

Bernero credits this to Lark´s stewardship, which he said has strong support from the business community, adding that BWL is an award-winning utility, traditionally one of the largest and best in its class. He believes that willingness to listen will propel Lark to make the changes needed at BWL.

“He feel the pressure to get it right,” Bernero said. “If his record had been lackluster, this could be a chance to get him out. There is a pattern of excellent performance. Performance during the storm is an anomaly.”

Ultimately, decisions about Lark´s fate rests with the BWL board, which should adopt a more assertive role in overseeing the utility but still looks to Bernero for direction. (Bernero appoints board members, subject to Council approval.) But real change will happen slowly. Bernero will probably agree to broaden membership on BWL´s board, adding members from communities outside the city. But he is reluctant to expand the size of the board. New members will be added as current terms expire. It´s a good political compromise and will improve the organization.

But for now, this is his board and Lansing’s, and with Bernero, loyalty cuts two ways. Lucky for Lark.

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