Jan. 4 2014 12:00 AM

BWL general manager suggests staff changes but will avoid “knee-jerk” reaction

Photo by Amanda Milstead.

Friday, Jan. 3 — “Heads will roll where appropriate” in the aftermath of the Lansing Board of Water and Light’s handling of the massive power outage last week, General Manager J. Peter Lark said Friday.

In an interview on the TV show “City Pulse Newsmakers,” Lark was pressed about the utility’s failure to communicate with customers who were experiencing power outages.

“Are heads going to roll over that — for years you have not gotten into the modern communications era,” Lark was asked.

“Are heads going to roll? Heads will roll where appropriate,” he responded.

He added, though, “I’m not going to engage in knee-jerk reactions where every time a system breaks down a head rolls.”

The interview airs at 9 a.m. Sunday on MY18-TV. It will also be available at lansingcitypulse.com on Monday.

Lark favored keeping his own head, though.  He defended his overall performance as the leader of BWL for six and a half years.

“Leadership is about track record. I think (mine) is very fine. A lot of things have been accomplished in the last six-and-a-half years.”

He also defended the utility’s employees.

“We have had a number of outages. Our systems handled those very well.”

The question about heads rolling surfaced after Lark was asked about the utility’s inability to produce an outage map showing where customers lost power, as Consumers Energy had. Lark has somewhat downplayed the issue, referring to some customers who said, “Who wants a map? Who wants to know we don’t have power?”

For some, though, a map would have at least shown that BWL knew where it had outages. Lark recognized that and said it’s been made clear customers want one.

“We are going to bring a map up,” he said.

Lark was also asked how BWL’s response would be different if the same storm happened next week.

“Certain small things would change,” he said, though some of the issues being discussed “are going to take more than a couple of weeks.”

For example, BWL’s call center typically handles about 1,500 calls a day, Lark said. On the two busiest days after the ice storm, it received 111,000 and 120,000 calls.

“Have we fixed that yet so that in two weeks we’ll be able to better handle those calls? No, we haven’t,” he said. “Are we working on it? Yes, we are.”

In two weeks, Lark said an outage map may be in place. But at the end of the day, Lark said in context, the utility’s system was simply overloaded.

“When you get an overload like this, and you get these kinds of numbers, you begin to see where there are problems with that system,” he said.

Yet Lark contended that BWL, which he called a “midsize utility,” serves Lansing better than a bigger one would.

“All the times we had outages we generally beat the competition in getting our lines back.”

He added: “We are very interwoven with the city. We provide a lot of community involvement that a utility not owned and operated by the city (does not).”

He also said the “biggest standpoint” for not selling BWL is that “almost upwards of 20 percent of the city’s budget comes from the Board of Water and Light. We are making a very generous contribution to the city. ... I think the city would be making a mistake” to sell it.

Note: Audio from the portion of the interview when Lark references heads rolling is available at the top of this page.

Press play to listen