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Suffolk Closeup: Long Island Power Authority’s lost way
Whatever happened to the original vision of what the Long Island Power Authority was to be — a democratic entity through which Long Islanders would determine their own energy future?
Governor Andrew Cuomo this month declared that “LIPA basically was supposed to be a holding company and more of a pass-through operation.” It has instead “strayed from” that role, Mr. Cuomo said as he ordered a review of LIPA to find “synergies” with other state agencies and state contractors.
But Governor Cuomo is missing the point about what LIPA was to be about.
LIPA was created under the Long Island Power Act of 1985 with three major goals:
1) Stopping the Long Island Lighting Company from moving ahead with its Shoreham nuclear power plant and the other six to 10 nuclear plants LILCO wanted to build;
2) Getting Long Island to go in another direction in energy — toward safe, clean, renewable power;
3) Having Long Island’s energy future decided democratically, with an elected LIPA board. A model was the Sacramento Municipal Utility District in California, which also got rid of a nuclear power plant and, through a democratic process led by SMUD’s elected board members, championed the development of solar and wind power.
Unfortunately, very unfortunately, Andrew Cuomo’s father, Mario Cuomo, as governor at the time, postponed the first election of LIPA board members. The elder Cuomo backed the creation of LIPA but he eliminated this key element. Then his successor, Governor George Pataki, formally revoked the provision calling for an elected LIPA board. As a result, the infamous “three-men-in-a-room” who dominate New York government — the governor, the State Assembly speaker and the State Senate leader — have chosen the LIPA board members. Most have had no energy background. They are political appointees.
Meanwhile, the Senate has not acted on legislation passed by the Assembly to restore democracy to LIPA. Several times the Assembly has passed a bill (most recently in 2010), co-sponsored by Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele Jr. of Sag Harbor, restoring an elected LIPA board.
What’s the Senate’s problem? “Elected officials in both parties in the Senate fear that an elected LIPA board might become a farm team for people to run for the legislature,” explained Mr. Thiele, an Independent. “It’s just the political culture trying to protect itself.” Having candidates for the LIPA board discussing energy issues and getting public exposure is too much for these politicians.
“Tell Governor Cuomo: LIPA Needs Elections, Not More Privatization,” declares Ian Wilder of North Babylon, former co-chair of the Green Party of New York State, on his website, onthewilderside.com.
Governor Cuomo “wants to turn LIPA into a shell that outsources all functions,” says Mr. Wilder. “Now, more than ever, there is a desperate need for visionary leadership … We must turn LIPA into a model of sustainable energy. Long Island has the ability to harvest solar and offshore wind on a grand scale … If LIPA had elected directors, we could have a public debate of its direction and vote for leaders who would take it into the future rather than the past.”
Says Mr. Thiele of Governor Cuomo’s LIPA move: “Long Island’s public utility has been more accountable to Albany than [it is to] Long Island … Any reforms should focus on the establishment of a long-term energy plan for Long Island that provides energy security and lower rates. It must also increase local accountability and control. So-called ‘reforms’ that only serve to place more of Long Island’s energy future in the hands of other Albany bureaucrats will not be acceptable. I envision true reform as being a LIPA that is controlled by Long Islanders and that has real authority to pursue renewable energy sources, energy conservation and lower utility rates. A key part of such reform must include an elected Board of Trustees.”
Governor Cuomo’s call for LIPA “reform” would be a good thing only if it means a return to the original dream of Long Islanders deciding their own energy future democratically. In the name of “synergies,” enmeshing LIPA into the New York Power Authority — a sprawling bureaucracy with an appointed board — or with big private power companies will further destroy what was a wonderful and now more-than-ever needed energy vision.