By Carl Grossman
Finally, a bill to provide more light on the Long Island Power Authority has been passed—and unanimously—by the Suffolk County Legislature. LIPA had lobbied lawmakers not to support the effort by Legislator Edward Romaine to form a Long Island Power Oversight Committee. But, in the end, with the exception of one legislator who is with a law firm that represents LIPA, the other 17 members of the legislature stood up to LIPA.
The measure is now before County Executive Steve Levy who says he will “not oppose LIPA, meanwhile, is complaining about passage of the legislation saying it would create “another level of government.”
Meanwhile, State Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele, Jr. Sag Harbor, who has long fought for election of members of LIPA’s board of trustees, said last week that “the common theme here is the need for increased oversight and transparency regarding LIPA. Ed Romaine’s bill does the best that can be accomplished on the county level.”
But, said Mr. Thiele, “we will not have full accountability of LIPA until the trustees are elected by the people they are supposed to serve.” Now, “I would describe it as Long Island’s public electric company being operated by political insiders responsible to Albany politicians.” Mr. Thiele said he will be re-introducing his bill next year to end having LIPA board members appointed by the governor and the two leaders of the State Legislature, and instead having them selected through election by Long Islanders.
The 17-0 vote on the Romaine bill at a legislative session December 7 came after a discussion in which Mr. Romaine stated: “LIPA lacks any oversight by anyone.” Moreover, it was supposed to have an elected board. “That promise was not fulfilled.”
“We need some independent body to start examining what LIPA is doing,” said Mr. Romaine of Center Moriches. “They don’t have [state] Public Service Commission oversight…
There is no one they report to. There is no one that checks into any of its activities.”
As an example of why this is needed, he noted how LIPA “pushed several years ago” for a “Green Choice Program…For a little extra in your rate structure they would buy green power….Many of the East End towns decided to buy into that program. And then one day I got a call from the supervisor of Shelter Island, at that time Mr. [Al] Kilb, and he said, ‘Ed, we buy 100% green power, Green Choice power. I have a contract for windmills…Can you tell me why I’m paying a fuel adjustment charge if I’m buying 100% green power?’ Declared Mr. Romaine:
“That’s because LIPA didn’t buy green power; they just charged a higher rate and said they did.”
“There’s a lot of good LIPA does and I don’t deny that,” said Mr. Romaine, “but I believe that a public authority requires some oversight. This is a vote for us to begin even the most minimal oversight. And those who would deny even the most minimal oversight are not benefitting the ratepayers of LIPA.”
Legislator Lou D’Amaro of Huntington Station said “I appreciate the goal here…Oversight is probably a good thing when it comes to the high energy rates that we’re paying here in Suffolk County and on Long Island. But I also am just wondering whether or not we have…the expertise and the financial wherewithal to conduct effective oversight.”
Mr. Romaine responded to Mr. D’Amaro: “I believe it’s a step one in a multi-step process. And I also believe, as I’m sure you understand as an attorney, that the powers of this legislature are considerable, and I’m sure cooperation will be assured one way or the other.”
When the vote came, Mr. D’Amaro recused himself noting he is with Rivkin Radler, a Uniondale law firm that represents LIPA.
The panel to be established would have six unpaid members chosen by the legislature: two experts in energy matters and two in utility operations; one specifically familiar with LIPA; and one representing a civic group. It would hold four public hearings in 2011 and issue a report.
“We’re sending a signal that we’re going to be far more deeply involved in the operations of LIPA,” said Mr. Romaine. That needs to happen, along with, indeed, a “multi-step” program of oversight of the utility—and the election of those who run it.