Jan. 29 2014 12:00 AM

BWL’s review team must grapple with the “people problem”


For the community review team investigating the Lansing Board of Water and Light’s botched response to the December ice storm, determining what went wrong is easy.

The BWL didn’t hire enough emergency repair crews. Its communications plan was weak and badly executed. And the boss, General Manager Peter Lark, flew off in the middle of the crisis for a family vacation in New York.

But why it happened and what to do about it will be harder. With any business, adjusting systems and procedures is easier than dealing with people problems, and it may be that BWL’s leadership team, however broadly it’s defined, just isn’t that good.

Compared with most Michigan power companies, the BWL is an odd duck. Unlike hard-edged commercial utilities like Consumers Energy Corp. or DTE Energy Co. which are beholden to the exacting rigors of the financial markets, the BWL exists in the cocooned world of Lansing city politics, a stew of alliances and enmi ties, clubby relationships and paybacks, budget subsidies, unions and, somewhere in all of this, ratepayers.

While a company like Consumers competes internationally for investor dollars, the BWL competes locally for political patronage. It’s playing high school ball in a business populated by major leaguers.

It’s possible that the review team may find that the BWL simply lacks the institutional discipline of investor-owned utilities, that its culture and management is (and this is the last sports metaphor) soft.

Underlying the review process is the expectation that a power company ought to have a meaningful disaster plan. Granted, the ice storm caused significant damage to power lines. But as disasters go, what knocked down the BWL could have been so much worse.

What if ice disabled 100 percent (not 40 percent) of the BWL’s power lines? Or a tornado destroyed most of its equipment? Or a fire leveled headquarters or generating plants? What if a grave illness or attack decimated the workforce? Unlikely. But wouldn’t a prudent utility start with endgame catastrophes and back into lesser, though still serious, calamities?

What is utterly striking is how quickly the BWL addresses shortcomings that prolonged the power outages and angered customers. It says that it has increased by “three-fold” the number of crews available to assist during a catastrophic storm, that it will triple the number of tree-trimming crews and is hiring more full-time line workers and dispatchers. It set up a tollfree phone number to report outages and has a web-site map to track them.

All of this in just four weeks, which suggests a cavalier, institutional approach to its primary mission: reliable electric service. Lark’s escape to New York merely reinforces this perception, as does the many-pronged customer-service collapse.

Ultimately the post-storm mission for the volunteer review team and the utility’s befuddled board of directors is restoring confidence in the BWL. The panel organized by Mike McDaniel at the behest of Lansing Mayor Virg Bernero plans to operate openly, ignoring a predictable ruling by Lansing City Attorney Janene McIntyre that it can act in secret if it so chooses. This is encouraging ... and necessary for the team’s credibility.

As for the BWL’s board of directors, it’s time for meaningful oversight, which means digging into the numbing legal, managerial and technical complexities that govern utilities.

A seat on the BWL board has long been considered one of the plum positions doled out by the city. There is no pay, maybe a road trip or two and a lot of nodding in agreement with the utility’s management. Certainly after December’s breakdown this must change.

The mayor, who makes appointments, and the City Council, which approves board candidates, need to take their responsibilities seriously. The BWL board, which has the legal oversight, must ask hard questions and demand accountability. At the very least, it ought to be embarrassed by the performance of the organization it governs and by its own lack of meaningful oversight.

For most of us, all we want to know about electricity is that we have it when we need it. But for those in charge of providing it, it isn’t that simple. We learned this in December. Has the BWL?