The question landed with a thud, then sparked a kerfuffle.
At last week’s regular meeting of the Lansing City Council, First Ward Councilman Brandon Betz asked a prospective mayoral appointee to the Lansing Board of Water & Light to disclose her age. That’s a no-no under state and federal anti-discrimination laws. It was a rookie mistake by a first-time elected official, but we’re confident Betz will learn from it. With a little more seasoning — and a little less “ok boomer” ageism — we think he’ll continue to serve the city and his constituents well.
Betz’ ill-advised question was directed to Sandy Zerkle, a BWL commissioner who has served in the position for 14 years, and whose reappointment to yet another four-year term was recommended by Mayor Andy Schor and approved, 5-3, by the Council. Keeping Zerkle in place is a nod to the utility’s employee union, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, which has considerable influence over appointments to the BWL commission. Although there are no designated seats on the BWL board (except for non-voting members who represent East Lansing, Delta Township and Meridian Township), it is widely understood but generally unspoken that Zerkle, who worked for the AFL-CIO for more than a decade, represents organized labor on the panel. Not surprisingly, politicians frequently bend to the wishes of powerful interest groups like labor unions in the hopes that their allegiance will be rewarded with endorsements and campaign cash.
Predictably, the blowback over Betz’s inappropriate question overshadowed the larger point he was trying to make, which relates to the qualifications of appointees who serve on various city boards and commissions — or the lack thereof. Although an appointee’s age should never be a factor, we share his broader concerns, as do Councilwoman Kathie Dunbar and Councilman Brian Jackson, who joined him in unsuccessfully opposing her reappointment and also that of another longtime commissioner, Tracy Thomas. Those concerns are also ably expressed in Randy Dykhuis’ letter to the editor in today’s edition of City Pulse.
Perhaps nowhere are qualifications more important than in selecting commissioners for the Lansing Board of Water & Light. Although it is a wholly owned subsidiary of the city, the BWL is an independently managed corporation with a $266 million annual budget and more than 700 employees. As the principal provider of water and electricity to the region — and a major source of greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change — the decisions made by the BWL’s management and board profoundly influence our local economy, public health and the environment.
On its face, longevity on the BWL commission isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It brings continuity and institutional knowledge that can add considerable value to the enterprise. But there is also something to be said for fresh faces that add diverse perspectives, and that bring the kinds of expertise needed to understand the intricacies of energy production and distribution, and to evaluate the long-term impacts of the utility’s activities on public health and the environment. Although her colleagues say Zerkle is an engaged and productive member of the commission, her reappointment is a missed opportunity to breathe new life into the board and bring greater knowledge to the table.
Barring any resignations between now and then, the next opportunity to appoint members to the BWL commission comes next year, when the terms of at-large commissioner Anthony Mullen and First Ward commissioner David Lenz are set to expire. Lenz is an architect who was appointed to the board by Mayor Schor in 2018. Mullen, who works in the private sector, was appointed in 2012 by former Mayor Virg Bernero. Other members of the board include a real estate appraiser, an attorney and former state agency director, a retired association executive, an educator and a plumber who serves on the executive board of his union.
When the time comes, we encourage Mayor Schor to consider appointing one or more commissioners with specific areas of expertise that would imbue the BWL board with a deeper well of knowledge relative to the economics of energy production, its impact on public health and the complexities of climate change. While it is also important to have everyday citizens on the board who can speak for ratepayers, subject matter experts who can engage BWL management at a higher level would enrich the dialogue and help guide the utility toward a greener future. We’re generally satisfied with the utility’s direction and performance, but as Dyhuis wrote, “We need commissioners who are well-educated and data-driven, who have strong science, public health, or environmental backgrounds, and who are unafraid to challenge the status quo.”
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