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Wednesday, January 22,2014

BWL Watch

Keeping an eye on Lansing’s publicly owned utility

by Andy Balaskovitz and RJ Wolcott
It didn’t take long for controversy to swirl around Monday’s announcement of the outside review panel selected to investigate the Board of Water and Light’s handling of the ice storm that hit a month ago.

State Journal reporters Steven R. Reed and Lindsay VanHulle reported in separate stories Tuesday that retired Brig. Gen. Mike McDaniel — who was tapped by Mayor Virg Bernero to select the 10-member Community Review Team (see list below) — believes subjecting the group to open records and meetings laws would be “really burdensome,” and that most of those selected come from governmental backgrounds. (McDaniel will appear on “City Pulse Newsmakers” at 9 a.m. Sunday on My18 TV.)

“It looks like the list is deeply political,” said East Lansing resident Alice Dreger, who has arisen as an outspoken critic during the fallout of the storm. “Unfortunately, it’s the usual suspects in a way — friends of Virg. … To combine that with the lack of our ability to scrutinize what they’re doing indicates the process is being turned into a political game.

“At this point, the BWL has lost our confidence. For us to regain that confidence we need a thorough, transparent investigation.”

“I absolutely disagree with that,” said T.J. Bucholz, a spokesman for McDaniel. “Mayor Bernero has not been involved at all with the decision-making process.”

As for a majority of the members — three of which are women, seven men — having governmental backgrounds: “I don’t think that’s uncommon in a city like Lansing,” Bucholz said. “Practically everyone who works here has at one time or another experience in government, whether it be the local or state level.”

Dreger is also considering convening an East Lansing-based citizens group and “do it ourselves.” She said she was unable to apply for McDaniel’s committee because of conflicts with her work schedule.

Bucholz said the list of 10 was whittled down from 85 applicants to be on the panel, but he declined to release a list of all the applicants. “We’ll be tapping into probably 20 or 30 people who applied who have some sort of subject matter expertise over the next 60 days.”

The team members are:

Lansing Patricia Spitzley: Deputy redevelopment manager for the RACER Trust, which was set up in 2009 to manage abandoned GM plants across the country. She is the former communications director of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality.

Larry Bass: CEO of Friedland Industries, a recycling and processing plant based in Lansing. He also serves as chair emeritus for Sparrow Health Services.

Joan Nelson: As director of the Allen Neighborhood Center, Nelson works to promote health, safety and stability programs for Lansing neighborhoods.

Kyle Bowman: A Michigan State Police lieutenant and an adjunct professor of Homeland Security at Siena Heights University in Adrian.

Meridian Township Jerry Richards: The sole representive from Meridian Townshop, Richards is the former chief executive officer of the township and works for Mannik & Smith Group, an engineering and environmental services firm in Lansing.

East Lansing Beverly Baten: An East Lansing City Councilwoman from 1997-2008, Baten has worked on a number of public policy issues, including serving on the Council when indoor furniture was banned from outside use in reaction to numerous celebratory couch burnings near MSU’s campus in 2004.

Douglas Jester: With experience as both a City Council member and mayor of East Lansing, Jester brings considerable government experience to the panel. Jester works for the alternative energy consulting firm 5 Lakes Energy.

While he didn’t lose power during the outages, Jester told the Lansing State Journal he is most concerned with the length of the outages, the communications breakdown and the lack of coordination between BWL and city governments.

Delta Township Darnell Earley: Earley is the emergency financial manager of Flint and also served as city administrator and temporary mayor there between 2001 and 2004. Most recently he was Saginaw’s city manager.

Bill Long: Long and J. Peter Lark, BWL’s general manager, both worked for the Michigan Public Service Commission, albeit serving at different times. Long also worked as the director of the Michigan Department of Labor.

The commission is expected to hold community forums in Lansing, East Lansing and Delta Township by March 31, according to a press release.

Individuals still looking to voice concerns are asked to email any suggestions to lansingcrt@gmail.com, or attend the upcoming public hearings.

BWL’s ‘insular’ culture Brad Van Guilder, a national field staffer for the Sierra Club working on the group’s clean-energy campaign, told BWL officials at a public meeting in East Lansing last week: “There tends to be a fairly insular culture at the BWL” when it comes to communicating with the public.

Van Guilder was speaking in the context of ongoing “energy dialogues” that are taking place between the Sierra Club and the BWL about the utility’s long-range transition away from burning coal. That may affect customers because changes will require improvements in the local service territory, the distribution grid and additional lines.

“This is the perfect opportunity to have an open conversation with the community about how they want to make improvements in that local distribution grid,” he said.

Van Guilder said the BWL is actually far ahead of investor-owned utilities DTE and Consumers on this front, but has failed to communicate its plans to customers.

“Mostly your communication with the public is discussing with (BWL) commissioners rather than taking in the wisdom of the community,” he told officials last week.

George Stojic, the BWL’s executive director of strategic planning and development, was unavailable for comment.

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