Jan. 23 2014 12:00 AM

Will juggle dealing with issues in public and in private

The Community Review Team met for the first time in Lansing this morning. Andy Balaskovitz/City Pulse

Thursday, Jan. 23 — It appears an independent panel reviewing the Board of Water and Light’s response to last month’s ice storm will play a balancing act for the next two months as it shares its work with the public but also shields sensitive information that may surface.

Community Review Team Chairman Mike McDaniel, a retired National Guard brigadier general, said while the group will meet in public when it can, “Certain confidential documents … are just going to come into play. It may be proprietary data.”

He also plans on having interviews with “key employees” at the BWL, which may reveal “personnel matters” that would otherwise be exempt from the Freedom of Information Act, he said.

“There are some issues we have to consider I think in closed session,” McDaniel said. “We are not a public body under the definition of the Open Meetings Act. However, because our core value is transparency … our meetings themselves will be open to the public whenever possible.”

Some members met for the first time at the all-volunteer panel’s first organizational meeting this morning at the R.E. Olds Museum in Lansing. Over roughly an hour and a half, the group charted a course on how to proceed in four phases.

As the meeting was wrapping up, state Rep. Sam Singh, D-East Lansing, and Delta Township Supervisor Ken Fletcher appeared jointly on WKAR’s “Current State” encouraging the group to be as public as possible.

“I don’t think there’s much discussion here of a private nature,” Singh said, adding that it’s not a private entity whose sharing of certain documents could “make them uncompetitive with other companies. This is a public utility. These conversations should be public.” (Singh also said on the show that the BWL needs a new communications leader, but declined to name names. More on that here.)

Going forward, the nine-member panel will request documents from the BWL and interview key employees — as well as outside experts in utilities and engineering — to compare the utility’s response with industry benchmarks.

The group debated on how — or whether — to compare the BWL with investor-owned utilities like DTE and Consumers. Members want to avoid aspects that aren’t necessarily “apples to apples,” but, for example, it plans to examine why DTE and Consumers prepared for the storm upwards of two weeks before it hit, according to media reports, while the BWL was late in the game.

“(The BWL) should have had that same capability two weeks prior,” panel member Patricia Spitzley said. “I don’t care what their ranking is (with other municipal and investor-owned utilities), the fact is they started planning two weeks ahead. That’s significant.”

McDaniel added that he thought “Consumers was much better in communicating with customers … but in terms of actual response, I don’t know if it’s better or not,” given the much greater total number of outages for Consumers.

Panel member Darnell Earley, a Delta Township resident and emergency manager in Flint, said the board should examine the “viability and sustainability of this entity” and called picking apart communication failures “low-hanging fruit. … I’m more interested in those things that are organizational in nature.”

McDaniel said the group will split off into three groups to look separately at the BWL’s preparedness, response and recovery efforts. Each group will make specific recommendations on those topics.

It is also holding three public hearings early next month, which the group unanimously agreed should be different than the three the BWL hosted last week.

“Trying to get something more than just vetting of frustrations would be valuable,” said panel member Bill Long, a former director of the state Department of Labor.

Public hearings are set for Feb. 4 (Pattengill Middle School in Lansing), Feb. 5 (Hannah Community Center in East Lansing) and Feb. 6, at a location to be determined, likely in Delta Township. All meetings are scheduled for 7 p.m. to 9 p.m.

For those who can’t attend meetings, public comments can be sent to lansingcrt@gmail.com

Kyle Bowman, a Michigan State Police lieutenant, resigned from the panel on Wednesday, citing work scheduling conflicts, McDaniel said today. McDaniel said he will “probably not” replace him. See here for the full list of members.

McDaniel hopes the group will meet a March 31 deadline to release its final recommendations.