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Wednesday, March 12,2014

The general jabs at BWL

Lots of information, but not enough answers

by Mickey Hirten
You’ve got to give Lansing Mayor Virg Bernero credit for ordering up a hard-nosed look at what happened at his power company during the December ice storm.

While he’s a staunch defender of the Lansing Board of Water and Light and its management, Bernero knew there were serious problems and asked for a unvarnished post mortem. Which is what he’s going to get ... and maybe more.

Hints of where the community review team’s investigation is heading surfaced during a five-hour meeting with the BWL’s senior management on Monday. Questioning was polite but pointed. Did union work rules affect how the utility staged its outage recover operation? (Management said they didn’t.) Why didn’t the BWL ask the city to declare an emergency? Who makes decisions and how do they do it? How come no one called officials outside of Lansing with power restoration updates?

The very first question, directed to BWL General Manager J. Peter Lark, dealt with his ill-timed vacation Christmas vacation in New York. “Let’s do this once and get it over with,” review team chairman Michael McDaniel said. “What were you thinking?”

Lark, to his credit, acknowledged once again that leaving town was a mistake, but he reminded the committee that he was working continually while in New York, receiving emails and texts. But this only served as a reminder that Lark destroyed much of his digital communications and that the BWL only belatedly found supposedly missing emails. McDaniel is a military man, a former brigadier general in the Michigan National Guard. He has said that a good commander sticks by his troops.

Much of the hearing focused on the BWL’s gamble that its flawed Outage Management System wouldn’t be tested seriously until its technical staff and supplier, General Electric, could resolve welldocumented problems. The OMS is used to receive outage calls, track downed wires and other troubles reported by BWL’s customers and staff. It’s what a utilities use to tell customers when power should return.

We now know that this system was still in what BWL calls a “project” phase, and that functions like outage maps, web reporting, links to other systems and another dozen items didnīt work. What the panel didnīt ask was who bought the failed system and why. But the review will surely address the issue. And itīs likely to question why with all of the problems, BWL didnīt keep its old outage management system operating as a back-up until the new system worked.

Throughout the session BWL managers stressed that the OMS failure didn’t meaningfully affect how quickly they restored electricity. Rather, it frustrated customers who couldn’t determine whether the utility knew about their problems or when they might be resolved.

It was the communications breakdown that prompted one of the sharpest lines of questioning, a challenge to Lark and his managers to acknowledge what former East Lansing Councilwoman Beverly Baten called a “privilege list.” Elected officials like Lansing Councilwoman Carol Wood and commissioners of the publicly owned utility forwarded customer complaints and questions to Lark, who fielded their calls and got them answers.

“If a BWL commissioner is a privileged person, I want to be one,” Baten told Lark, who defended his actions as pure customer service. “It’s incumbent on me that when she (Wood) or any entity called me to get that information to the T&D (transmission and distribution) people,” Lark said.

But as Lark acknowledged during the hearing, many public officials have his private phone numbers. Those are the people who call the general manager of a utility for updates.

Members of the review team — all volunteers — clearly are serious and prepared for the exhausting job of dissecting BWL’s performance.

Stacks of materials provided by the utility fill two large binders and weigh in at 11 pounds. There are piles of emails and other documents. Although he is flooded with documents, McDaniel isn’t an easy sell and isn’t at all certain that Lark and his managers get the spirit of the inquiry. He was particularly annoyed that a 54-point document outlining key issues and BWL’s response — held aloft by managers as a commitment to improvements — wasn’t shared with the review team. They had to ask for it.

“Why don’t they just provide it,” McDaniel said after the meeting. He questioned Lark about BWL’s record retention policy. Despite assurances that it had been provided, McDaniel didn’t get a copy until Monday.

It’s probably not a good tactic to annoy the general. Still, most committee members were pleased with the session, saying they learned about the nature and complexity of the issues facing BWL during and after the ice storm.

The review team had hoped to have its report finished by the end of March — a look back, as much as a look forward. But this isn’t likely to happen. What’s called for is a thorough review. A delay makes no difference.

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