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Lansing Mayor Andy Schor plugged a hole in the Board of Water & Light’s Board of Commissioners Monday night by naming Deshon Leek, a veteran plumber and union steward, to the Third Ward seat, but the repair job isn’t making everyone happy.
Two City Council members, siding with local environmentalists, said they would like to see a commissioner with expertise in energy or environmental and climate science. The Council approved Leek’s appointment Monday night, with Councilman Brian Jackson casting the only “no” vote. (Councilman Peter Spadafore was absent.)
“Nothing personal to Mr. Leek, I think he’s a great person,” Jackson said. “I’m voting no because the position is so important, especially given our current climate crisis. It’s important that the commissioners who drive the decision for our energy future have either some energy expertise or environmental or renewable energy expertise.”
Councilwoman Kathie Dunbar voted to approve Leek’s appointment, but shared Jackson’s concerns.
“I really would like to see us do some vetting that looks at expertise in sustainability,” she said.
Rebecca Payne, a local environmentalist and vocal opponent of the utility’s new $500 million natural gas plant, said she was passed over for the job, despite the mayor’s claim at Monday night’s City Council meeting that Leek was the only applicant.
Payne, a Third Ward resident and member of the Lansing Environmental Action Team, said she applied for the position in January 2018 and was contacted by the mayor’s office about the position in September.
Payne furnished City Pulse with a Sept. 26 email from Matthew Schraft, special assistant to the mayor, “following up as to your current interest in this board.”
“I am absolutely interested,” Payne replied via email the same day. Payne said she never heard back from the Mayor’s Office after that.
After Schor was informed that Payne had applied, he looked into it more and discovered she was correct. He apologized for the oversight.
“Like Mr. Leek, Ms. Payne is not an energy expert but has a desire to serve her community. I have not spoken with her, but in reviewing her application it looks like she would be a fine citizen representative on the BWL board. I take full blame for the error, and Ms. Payne has my apologies. She will certainly be included in future considerations for openings on the BWL board.”
Payne is a longtime environmental activist and served as LEED — Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design— consultant for the new home of the Red Cedar Friends, where she served as clerk. She works in the state Department of Health and Human Services as a specialist on aging services.
Jackson called upon the mayor Monday to conduct a “broader search” in the future “or at least consult with myself and other people and I’m sure we can get somebody with some of that background.”
Schor said he welcomes anyone with an interest in serving on any city board, but he said had to beat the bushes to find an applicant for Third Ward BWL commissioner.
“We reached out to several people, to Third Ward Councilmember Adam Hussain, to labor, to business, and asked them if they knew someone who would do the work, and Deshon stepped up,” Schor said.
Leek is a longtime steward of Plumbers and Pipefitters Local 333, which supported Schor in his run for mayor. Schor said that after spreading the word of the BWL vacancy, a member of the union contacted him to let him know Leek was interested. The BWL negotiates with the union.
Schor said the union’s support had no bearing on the appointment.
“A lot of groups and interests supported me,” he said. “Seventy-three percent of the electorate supported me. I make decisions based on what’s best for the city.”
At Monday’s meeting, Councilman Hussain said he doesn’t take appointments to the BWL board lightly.
“The charter empowers this board with unique legislative and executive authority,” Hussain said. “This is an incredibly important board.” But Hussain said he is satisfied that Leek is “willing to learn and engage.”
Hussain said he didn’t know all he needed to know about city government when he was elected to the Council. Councilwoman Jody Washington took the same tack.
“When I was appointed a fire commissioner, I had not been a firefighter,” Washington said.
Leek, 45, was born and raised in Lansing.
He graduated from Everett High School and studied construction management at Lansing Community College. After serving a five-year apprenticeship, he joined Local 333 of the Plumbers’ and Pipefitters’ Union. He’s been union steward for seven years and a journeyman plumber for 20 years.
“I’ve been fortunate and blessed with my career and I would like to give back to my community,” Leek said. “I’d like to be a steward of the environment and I’d like to see Lansing do better.”
Leek said affordability is a key issue in the Third Ward.
“We’ve got a lot of low-income people in the community. It’s harder on them if they’re not able to afford utilities,” he said.
But he emphasized that he is conscious of the urgency to move away from fossil fuels.
“It was great that we got rid of coal,” he said. “Burning coal was terrible for everybody, our kids, grandkids.” The BWL plans to go coal free by 2025, when the Erickson Power Station is closed.
Leek said the BWL’s new $500 million natural gas-fired plant is a “great bridge” to an all-renewable energy future. Environmentalists say the plant will needlessly lock the utility into burning more fossil fuels for 30 to 40 years.
“I’d like to stay on the path of clean energy,” Leek said. “That’s big. I know the technology isn’t quite there, and affordability is an issue, but I believe one day we will get there.”
Leek said he would not rubber stamp projects or plans BWL staff puts in front of the commission.
“I’m definitely not a yes man,” he said. “My union prepared me for that.”
Douglas Jester, a non-voting advisory member of the BWL Board of Commissioners and the sole energy specialist on the board, said the environmentalists’ call for an energy expert is a “fair concern on their part. The board should have diverse interests and backgrounds represented,” he said.
Jester is a specialist in energy policy and utilities regulation, a former advisor at the Michigan Department of Energy and a partner in Five Lakes Energy. He doesn’t get a vote on the board because he represents East Lansing, a BWL service area outside of Lansing.
With Leek’s appointment, the board remains strong in members with financial acumen, but still has no voting members with energy or environmental expertise.
Anthony Mullen (at-large) works at GC Services, a debt collection agency. Ken Ross (at-large) is a specialist in banking and a former financial regulator. Tracy Thomas (at-large) is chief deputy principal at Waverly High School. David Lenz (First Ward) is an architect. Beth Graham (Second Ward) is a Realtor. David Price (At-Large) is a retired director of MARO, an association representing disabled employees. Sandra Zerkle (Fourth Ward) worked for the AFL-CIO and various Lansing companies and nonprofits, including AT&T and Job Corps.
“You do not need to be the subject expert when you’re appointed to these boards,” Councilwoman Washington said. “You have to be willing to work and willing to learn.” Dunbar said she expected Leek to be a quick study and hard worker.
“I didn’t study politics, and here I am,” Dunbar said. “I didn’t study environmental science, and yet I have a concern for the environment.” She asked Leek to get up to speed on “issues folks are concerned about, and that’s all we can ask.”