April 23 2014 12:00 AM

A Lansing State Journal story catches J. Peter Lark withholding information from his bosses about serious workplace violations at the Lansing Board of Water and Light


If he needs to change jobs, J. Peter Lark, Lansing Board of Water and Light’s general manager, could easily play the fast-talking lawyer Billy Flynn in the musical “Chicago.” He’s got the suits. He’s got the coif. And Lark plays his board of commissioners the way Flynn plays juries.

Flynn does it — actually, sings it — this way:

“Give ’em the old razzle dazzle. Razzle dazzle ’em.

Give ’em an act with lots of flash in it.

And the reaction will be passionate.

Give em the old hocus pocus. Bead and feather ’em.

How can they see with sequins in their eyes.

What if your hinges are all rusting?

What if in fact you’re just disgusting?

Razzle dazzle them and they’ll never catch wise.

But Flynn may have been wrong with this last line. Finally some BWL commissioners are catching wise, seeing through Lark’s razzle dazzle. And they need to.

Revelations last week by Lansing State Journal reporter Steven Reed illustrates a serious disconnect with Lark and his managers. Reed reported BWL’s commissioners were not told that the utility was cited for 10 serious workplace safety violations and $13,700 in fines by the Michigan Occupational Safety and Health Administration as a result of a $23 million water treatment plant accident in July 2011.

As least two of the commissioners, Cynthia Ward and Vice Chairman Dennis Louney, said in Reed’s LSJ article that they should have known. “As an individual board member, that is something I would have wanted. I don’t understand why we weren’t told,” Ward said. Louney had a similar comment.

For a chief executive to be so out of touch with his bosses — the BWL commissioners — is bad for both. What did the board know about BWL’s resolution of this avoidable accident? According to the LSJ, responding to Louney’s request for an update on the accident, BWL water director Dick Peffley and Lark “offered a silver-lining scenario — no injuries, substantial insurance reimbursement and virtually new plant nearing its return to full automation. Their presentation ended to applause.”

Give ’em the old razzle dazzle.

Here is what happened at the Wise Road water treatment plant. An employee pumped 2,150 gallons of bleach into a tank filled with 1,900 gallons of fluoride. The chemicals reacted, creating a toxic cloud that corroded the interior workings of the water treatment plant and required the evacuation of people living nearby. No one was injured. BWL’s insurer paid $22.5 million to cover the damage and the utility hopes to recover its $500,000 deductible from the company that delivered the bleach, which it says was offloaded at the wrong location.

MIOSHA — the Michigan Occupational Safety and Health Administration — wasn’t applauding. It was pointed in its criticism of BWL, citing inadequate training, weak documentation and sloppy work habits. Initially the agency fined BWL $35,800, which the utility bargained down to $13,700, the LSJ reported.

Unless it is cited often by MIOSHA, which may be possible, considering BWL’s threshold for disclosure, this episode seems unique enough to discuss with the board. Lark sent word he disagrees. “We typically do not report these kinds of findings to the board, as they reflect operation and not policy issues,” said spokesman Steve Serkaian, in response to an LSJ query to Lark. The commissioners at their meetings do, in fact, deal with operational issues. They are intertwined with policy, especially since the botched recovery from last December’s ice storm.

What Lark and his team seem slow to grasp is that the old razzle dazzle no longer works. Sure there are hold-outs, notably board Chairwoman Sandra Zerkle, who told the LSJ that she believed the board was adequately updated. But treating the board like stooges won’t work if commissioners begin to take governance seriously. Ultimately, BWL’s problems reflect on Lansing Mayor Virg Bernero. He appoints commissioners who share his approach to the utility. In Bernero’s defense, it is difficult to find volunteers willing and able to serve. Sitting on a city commission isn’t a glamor gig. It’s work, often tedious.

So here I’m changing course from my past position. Broaden the talent pool. Open slots on the Board of Commissioners to volunteers from all of the communities served by BWL. Currently, commissioners must be city residents. Bernero would find that there are talented people in East Lansing and the surrounding townships who are willing to serve and willing to question management.

This would require a change in the charter. But BWL’s top executives need better bosses to represent the interest of customers — strong commissioners who aren’t blinded by the razzle dazzle.