|By Andy Balaskovitz|
Keeping an eye on Lansing’s publicly owned utility
This story was updated on Jan. 29 to include finalized dates and locations for the Community Review Team's public hearings.
About that rate increase … In Monday’s Lansing State Journal, Lindsay VanHulle reports that while the BWL will be able to make its $20 million payment in lieu of taxes to the city and hire new people, it will still eventually need an $18 million rate increase from customers.
The BWL shelved plans after the December ice storm for the increase because of the way it would have appeared to customers. “Disingenuous,” is how BWL Commissioner Dennis Louney has put it. The increase, first proposed in November and subject to Board of Commissioners’ approval, would have taken effect March 1. In the past few city budget cycles, Mayor Virg Bernero warned the City Council that increasing the BWL’s annual payment in lieu of taxes would inevitably lead to passing those costs on to ratepayers. We’re seeing that happen as the city planned to get $8.1 million more this year compared to 2012.
Singh: BWL needs new communications leader State Rep. Sam Singh, D-East Lansing, appearing on WKAR’s “Current State” Thursday morning, called for “new leadership” in the utility’s communications department.
“As you rebuild the communications side of the BWL, for the future I think you need new leadership,” Singh said in a follow-up interview with City Pulse. Singh also supports the BWL’s hiring local PR firm Martin/ Waymire — under a reportedly $45,000 contract — to improve communications.
Singh said it should be up to BWL management and the Board of Commissioners on who exactly gets the axe. When asked multiple times if he was referring to communications director Steve Serkaian, Singh declined to say specifically.
MLive, City Pulse FOIA requests rejected, LSJ’s past due MLive.com’s Melissa Anders reported over the weekend that the BWL rejected the news outlet’s open-records request for emails, text messages and other communication documents during a six-day period in December for being “overly broad.”
A more specific follow-up request also was denied. BWL FOIA coordinator Brandie Ekren said emails don’t exist and texts are not subject to the state Freedom of Information Act.
“Texts are transitory communications by their nature, and do not establish or memorialize LBWL policy or procedures. They are a mere convenience, more akin to conversation. Because of their ephemeral nature, the LBWL has no policy requiring retention of text messages, and does not routinely do so. Public officials use text messaging today in the same manner they would have picked up the telephone a decade ago,” Ekren responded in part.
However, Jane Briggs-Bunting, president of the Michigan Coalition for Open Government, said the utility is obligated to turn over such records.
“Bottom line is, hiding and failing to respond doesn’t solve the issue, it just makes reporters dig deeper, because citizens want to know, and citizens frankly have a right to know,” she told MLive.
City Pulse was notified Tuesday morning of similar news. It requested “All records, including but not limited to email, phone records, and documents between J. Peter Lark and Lansing (Mayor) Virg Bernero, the Office of the Mayor, employees and board members of BWL, or other city officials” during the time Lark left town for New York City.
The BWL “was unable to identify any records that are responsive to your request” and that it is not required to create new records.
In other FOIA news, the State Journal reported on Thursday that the BWL had not responded to its request for documents in the allotted time under state law.
Under law, a public entity has five days to respond and can seek a 10-day extension. The Journal reported that the BWL said it would respond with records after 13 days from requesting the extension.
In 2003, Lark stressed communications In a piece last week for MLive, columnist Steve Miller digs up a 2003 report coauthored by then-chairman of the Michigan Public Service Commission J. Peter Lark (now the BWL’s general manager) about the importance of a timely and accurate crisis communications plan for state government.
The BWL’s response to the ice storm was anything but, Miller writes, before going after Lark’s employment contract and other “eyepopping” salaries for dozens of other employees. He cites the work of local watchdog Steve Harry, who in 2009 published the salaries of BWL employees on his website.
Miller alleges that up until now, the BWL — public as it may be — has operated in a bubble.
“Raises in secret, unreturned calls to its public and a leader who forgot the importance of what he wrote in 2003,” Miller writes.
McDaniel wants ‘openness’ Retired Brig. Gen. Michael McDaniel visited City Pulse’s TV show, “Newsmakers,” last week to outline his plan for an independent review of the BWL’s storm response and to give preliminary suggestions of the utility’s shortfalls.
Particularly, he believes the BWL’s emergency response plan was not “community based,” but rather “organizational based” and lacked basic tenets of keeping the public informed.
He said Lark’s leaving Lansing for New York City over a couple of days around Christmas “does make a difference,” comparing it to an army general being absent during battle.
McDaniel also clarified that the ninemember Community Review Team will do its best to operate publicly (even though it’s not subject to the Open Meetings Act) — unless it is dealing with classified or sensitive material.
The team, made up members from greater Lansing, held its first organizational meeting in Lansing on Thursday. Three public hearings are scheduled for Feb. 5 in East Lansing (Hannah Community Center); Feb. 6 in Lansing (Pattengill Middle School); and Feb. 7 in Delta Township (Delta Township Hall). All are scheduled for 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. McDaniel plans to issue a final set of recommendations to Mayor Virg Bernero by March 31.
For these topics and more, the episode is available for viewing at lansingcitypulse.com.
Ode to the outage, “A Nice Storm” Lansing-area folk band Jackalope recorded a five-minute, lighthearted track to memorialize the BWL’s handling of the ice storm.
Hooking up generators, the power grid “going straight to hell,” freezing houses, hiring plumbers and Lark’s vacation to New York all make the cut. Here’s a sample verse:
And with the masses of all their freezing asses the elements we did grapple. When we were finally defeated back to mothers we retreated But Peter went to the Big Apple. (What?) Yeah, Peter Lark went to the Big Apple.
Thanks to East Lansing resident Alice Dreger for sharing the song. You can listen for yourself at reverbnation.com/jackalopers or by searching “A Nice Storm” on YouTube.