Jan. 9 2014 12:00 AM

BWL prearranged speakers at its public board meeting Tuesday

Tim Barron speaking in support of the BWL on Tuesday night. Bill Castanier/City Pulse

This story was updated on Jan. 10 to include further comment from Wood. 

Thursday, Jan. 9 — For those who questioned whether the roster of speakers at Tuesday night’s Board of Water and Light meeting was arranged, it was.

In an exclusive interview with City Pulse this morning, local radio personality Tim Barron said he spoke with the BWL’s spokesman, Steve Serkaian, before the meeting to express his support and Serkaian put him at the top of the list.

“I had called Steve Serkaian to let him know they had my support … to be certain he knew where I was coming from,” Barron said. Serkaian called him back and said, “’Thanks, and I’m making sure you understand there’s a meeting of folks at the depot.’”

From there, “He made me first on the list.”

Serkaian confirmed he placed Barron on the list to accommodate Barron's schedule. City Councilwoman Carol Wood (who spoke third) was placed on the list by a BWL staffer when Wood arrived at the meeting. She was placed near the top because of her status as a City Councilwoman, Serkaian said. Barron left the meeting shortly after speaking, though Wood stayed for the entire five hours.

“Yes, the accommodations were made for public officials and others like Tim Barron to accommodate their schedules,” Serkaian said.

“If by placing Tim Barron’s name in the No. 1 slot and Carol Wood’s name in the No. 3 slot offended anyone, then we regret doing so and apologize to anyone that this action may have offended,” he added.

He also said four other speakers — the BWL’s Calvin Jones, union representatives Ron Byrnes and Jim Dravenstatt Moceri and Chuck Slammer, an outspoken critic of the BWL — also contacted the BWL to be signed up before the meeting.

Serkaian said the meeting followed the rules of the Open Meetings Act and no one was denied an opportunity to speak.

In a press release issued after this story broke, Wood said she would have been fine speaking last, if that was the case, and didn’t ask to be put near the top because of her Council position.

“I want to make it perfectly clear I NEVER asked not (sic) expected to be place (sic) at the beginning of the sign in sheet. I explained to the staff person I was fine with being at the end of the list. I was there for the entire meeting.

“It is most disheartening that the spokesperson for the BWL felt the need to twist the truth,” she said.

East Lansing resident Alice Dreger, who criticized the BWL’s response to the ice storm at the meeting and wrote about an unfortunate interaction with Chairwoman Sandra Zerkle on Tuesday, said today the meeting felt “rigged.”

“When Barron started the meeting with a Valentine to BWL, the whole thing felt rigged. As it progressed into a pep rally for BWL employees, it felt more rigged. Now we know it was rigged,” she said in an email. “This would be insulting enough without having had the personal experience of Chair Sandy Zerkle trying to cut me off when I finally was allowed, after an hour’s wait, to speak as a customer who went 9 days without power. All I was asking was 45 seconds speaking time for each day I was without power. Apparently that wasn’t part of Zerkle and Serkaian’s vision of the performance.”

Zerkle declined to comment on Serkaian’s adding Barron to the list before the meeting.

She said the board does not have a policy on signing in public speakers during meetings because it so rarely happens. Moreover, she said she shuffled speakers throughout the meeting to move ratepayers up the list before BWL employees because it appeared employees were front-loaded.

“We need to make sure customers had a fair shot to speak,” she said. “I realized we had an awful lot of employees signed up to speak. … I didn’t want it to be appearing that we were trying to allow nothing but employees to talk because we are concerned about our customers and want them to be heard as well.”

Barron — speaking first of 53 people, the majority of whom were BWL employees — exceeded the three-minute time limit to express his strong support for the public utility, as well as to chide “sensationalism” in media reports about the BWL’s handling of power restoration efforts. He showed up to the meeting to sign in and found his name was already at the top of the list — and misspelled.

Barron said he spoke with Serkaian the day before the meeting — or maybe it was Saturday or Sunday, he couldn’t remember.

Wood took a definitively different approach in calling for accountability for the utility’s storm response. Wood is also calling for General Manager J. Peter Lark’s resignation.

“I don’t see anything wrong,” Barron said. “They also made sure (the person) calling for Peter Lark’s head was at the top.”

Wood was the third speaker at the meeting, following Barron and the BWL’s Calvin Jones, director of public relations and diversity. He recognized that the arrangement of speakers “appeared front-loaded” with BWL employees expressing their support, though he believes that was fair game. He believes he and Wood were given priority because they are well known in the community because of their status.

“I have no regrets,” said the 53-year-old, adding that one of his rental houses lost power for 14 days.

Barron, who has been on local airwaves since 1985, said he has no ties to BWL, whether it be through advertising on his radio show or for appearances at charity events.