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Overseeing LIPA

Posted on 31 January 2010

With the start of the new year, Suffolk County Legislator Edward Romaine has been revising and will soon re-introduce his bill to create a county panel to give oversight to the Long Island Power Authority. And, in Albany, State Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele, Jr. is re-introducing his bill to return LIPA to having—as the law creating the authority originally provided—an elected board of trustees.

Meanwhile, Irving Like, a key figure in the creation of LIPA and a member of its original board, says that “more than ever there is reason now to why there should be an elected LIPA board.” A new key issue he points to: the estimated $600 million in work now underway to clean up heavily contaminated sites that LIPA’s predecessor, the Long Island Lighting Company, used to manufacture gas from coal. This includes a site where a giant blue gas ball stood in Sag Harbor and where the “remediation” has been completed. Another is along the Patchogue River in Patchogue.

 “If you had a LIPA board composed, as originally provided, of ratepayers representing 21 ratepayer districts on Long Island, you could be sure that these elected representatives would be representing the people in the areas of these toxic sites,” said Mr. Like.

Mr. Romaine in December introduced his bill to provide more light on LIPA through a county oversight board. His measure spoke of LIPA “rates and practices” not being “in the best interests of all of its ratepayers in Suffolk County” and said an “oversight” panel was needed to “determine if LIPA’s actions are adverse to the county’s ratepayers and may warrant the consideration of legal action.” The bill was tabled in committee.

 “It’ll be back,” says Mr. Romaine, “with some changes.” One change, he said, will be  having “more civic and community people” on the task force. “I’m very hopeful it will get broad support,” he said of the measure.  Mr. Romaine, of Center Moriches, said he expects to have it re-introduced next month and will endeavor to have it voted on in March. “We have to have someone analyzing what LIPA is doing and some of the choices we face,” said Mr. Romaine.

He acknowledged that LIPA has been upset by his bill. “I don’t know what they are afraid of,” said the legislator. “There needs to be some oversight of LIPA. The task force will take a look at rates, the possible purchase of power plants by LIPA and future energy needs of Long Island.”

The task force, he emphasized, would be in keeping with a 1999 measure passed by the legislature and signed into law by the county executive and, he noted, “presented to the voters in a referendum which they passed.” It is titled a “Charter Law Ensuring Consumer Protection Oversight of LIPA” and empowers Suffolk to serve as a watchdog on LIPA because, among a series of reasons, “an unelected LIPA board is incapable of providing consumer protection.”

That’s been a central concern about LIPA for Mr. Thiele and why he, again, is  introducing his bill to have LIPA return to its original vision and have an elected board through which Long Islanders can chart the island’s energy future. Having elections to LIPA’s board was postponed by Governor Mario Cuomo and then the election provision was eliminated by his successor, Governor George Pataki.  Instead, members of LIPA’s board have been appointed by the governor, the speaker of the State Assembly and the leader of the State Senate.

Having an elected LIPA board would give the agency “accountability,” stresses Mr. Thiele of Sag Harbor. He also supports Mr. Romaine’s bill. “As LIPA now operates, it has no oversight,”

Mr. Like, who was attorney for Citizens to Replace LILCO, the group that spearheaded LIPA’s creation, said LIPA was designed to have an elected board because that was seen as giving “transparency in the decision-making process and accountability and a voice to the ratepayers who would ultimately decide policy.”

As to the seven former LILCO gas sites, Mr. Like has been representing those impacted by the one in Bay Shore from which, he said, four plumes of cancer-causing contaminants, one plume a mile long, have been coming. Above the plumes are many homes and businesses. And this “legacy of LILCO,” being dealt with by principal LIPA energy supplier National Grid, is, he says, “the tip of the iceberg.” 

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