By any measure, this has not been a good week for the Long Island Power Authority. Nor has it been a good couple of weeks for LIPA’s customers — especially those who are still without power a full two-and-a-half weeks after Hurricane Sandy roared through.
While we certainly salute the hardworking men and women — many from out of state — who have been working day and night to get the power up and running in the midst of undeniable devastation, LIPA has a much bigger problem on its hands than the 7,900 Long Islanders still in the dark.
It’s an agency in serious need of real reform.
The first problem is the fact that members of LIPA’s board are appointed, not elected, and more often than not, those appointments are politically motivated. Which means this is a board made up of individuals with the right political connections who are largely unaccountable to clients when things go wrong — like in the aftermath of a major hurricane.
It’s not like we didn’t know this was coming. Last year, Tropical Storm Irene gave LIPA the ideal “test run” by showing on a smaller scale just what the utility needs to be able to do in advance and after a storm in order to keep the lights on.
Apparently, nobody at LIPA was taking notes because if there have been new protocols put in place since Irene, it didn’t show this time around. Like the storm itself, the numbers of people affected and the length of time they were powerless only grew this time around.
And now heads have started to roll — the first belonging to LIPA’s Chief Operating Officer and CEO Michael Hervey who announced his resignation yesterday.
It’s a good first step and we praise Governor Andrew Cuomo for implementing a new commission under the Moreland Act to investigate the hurricane response and management of the state’s public utilities, which includes LIPA.
We’re certainly hoping that this commission leads to substantive reform of LIPA. But that doesn’t mean Governor Cuomo is entirely off the hook here. Some of the blame for the LIPA debacle is his — according to a story in yesterday’s New York Times, five of LIPA’s 15 board seats are currently vacant and three of those are Cuomo’s to fill. But beyond that, sacrificial lamb Mike Hervey has been an interim CEO for two years. Why haven’t the mounting issues within LIPA been addressed by the state before and why wasn’t a permanent CEO sought out to guide the agency?
Part of what Cuomo is asking this new commission to do is examine and make recommendations on “the overlapping responsibilities and missions” of the state’s utility companies and the governing bodies that oversee them. In short, what we need — and what this commission will hopefully result in — is a clear path forward that determines not only how LIPA should be managed, but how they should prepare for storms and how the state can work with them on that.
An important next step comes in January 2014 when LIPA ends its contract with National Grid — the private British owned company that actually manages the power grid — and starts to partner with Public Service Enterprise Group (PSEG), the New Jersey based company which has generally gotten high marks for its service.
The next move, as advised by Assemblyman Fred Thiele, should be to change LIPA’s board from one that is appointed to one that is elected. It’s the best and in fact, the only way to hold a board accountable.
Ultimately here’s the truth of the situation, in the future, strong storms like Sandy or Irene are likely to be the norm, not the anomaly. With sea level on the rise, we can count on our basic services taking a beating on a regular basis. Which is why it’s important we put the work into making a strong utility with a strong board now — not a board of politically appointed trustees who talk about the approaching of the biggest storm in living memory for a total of 39 seconds during a two hour meeting (thank you New York Times for that tidbit).
Powerful storms aren’t going away anytime soon — so we need to bring LIPA into the 21st century to make sure the power doesn’t either.
Everyone’s tired of living in the dark.