Town holding fire on LIPA trustee issue

COURTESY PHOTO | Assemblyman Fred Thiele Jr. (I-Sag Harbor) is pushing legislation to take the appointment of LIPA trustees away from the governor.

As efforts to shake up how the Long Island Power Authority operates takes shape here and in Albany, Shelter Island officials are taking a wait-and-see approach.

With a recent presentation before the Town Board calling for legislation to empower the public to elect LIPA trustees rather than being appointed by the governor, and Assemblyman Fred Thiele Jr. (I-Sag Harbor) vowing to reintroduce a bill on the subject, Supervisor Jim Dougherty wondered at the December 11 Town Board Work Session if joining that effort would be a case of biting the hand that feeds you.

Councilwoman Christine Lewis agreed, noting the Island has had a positive relationship with the power authority as it now stands, but that relationship creates problems when it comes to joining the efforts to elect trustees or keeping the status quo where the governor appoints them to serve at his pleasure. It’s an awkward position and “we don’t want to make too much of that either,” she said.

Speaking about the effects of Hurricane Sandy and LIPA’s response here, Ms. Lewis added,  “We didn’t fare as badly as many communities farther west of us did. And for what [LIPA] did we were well served. I don’t want to jump on the bandwagon.”

Councilman Paul Shepherd helped form the consensus of staying on the sidelines of the proposed legislation, but also acknowledged the tricky line to take when, in effect, the Island’s ox is not being gored. “It would be somewhat indicative of a narrow view to say ‘We’re doing OK so screw everybody else.’”

Since LIPA has received a storm of outrage from many parts of the region for slow responses to people in need due to the hurricane, some top executives and trustees have resigned. R. Scott Lewis, an alternative energy supplier from Wainscott, speaking to the Town Board December 4, said accountability is essential and electing trustees will ensure that.

Mr. Lewis thought he had found language in the 1985 legislation that created LIPA calling for electing trustees, and he, along with others, petitioned the Board of Elections to allow them to run for trustee posts. When the BOE refused, he took them to court, where a judge threw out the suit.

His presentation before the board was impassioned but not completely focused, in fact Councilman Peter Reich said that listening to it was like being “taken to a room in the middle of a conversation.”

In a subsequent draft resolution Mr. Lewis emailed to the board on the issue, Mr. Shepherd said Mr. Lewis’ language was “in an elevated state of agitation” and “made our own Declaration of Independence look like rather tepid fare.”

But Assemblyman Thiele has a more measured approach, reintroducing legislation that calls for 17 LIPA trustees, one who will serve as chair to be appointed by the governor, and the rest elected by Long Island’s towns, certain municipalities and the part of Queens served by the authority.

“It was always the intention of the original sponsors of the bill that created LIPA that the trustees would be elected,” Mr. Thiele said.

The original board of trustees was appointed, tasked to serve only until they could be elected. But politics and the glacial movement of the Legislature kept postponing the provision that trustees be publicly elected, Mr. Thiele added.

“I’ve always supported the original intent because until recently when the trustees’ heads ended up on a platter, I’m not sure the public could name two of them because they were political appointees largely controlled by the governor who have no accountability and responsiveness to Long Island,” Mr. Thiele said. “What I am sure is that Long Islander’s care about their utility rates  and how their electricity is provided.”

A similar bill on electing trustees to the one to be introduced has been around for several years, Mr. Thiele said, always passed by the Democratically-controlled Assembly, but has stalled in the GOP-controlled Senate.

Mr. Thiele had no illusions why the bill never moved in the upper chamber. “Good old fashioned politics,” he said. “There’s been fear in the State Senate that those who were elected as LIPA trustees may at some point in the future be perceived to be potential candidates for the Senate, and I think lot of senators have viewed that as potential competition.”

Senator Ken LaValle (R-Port Jefferson) had a short response to that analysis: “Hogwash.”

Senator LaValle said when LIPA was created there was a mutual agreement between officials, Democrat – including then Governor Mario Cuomo — and Republican alike to postpone the election provision of the new law.

“The rationale was that we didn’t need anther layer of elected government,” Senator LaValle said, noting that the Suffolk County Legislature and the attorney general’s office already had oversight of the board.

The whole question is academic, Senator LaValle added, since Governor Andrew Cuomo has created the Moreland Commission, charged according to its brief to “investigate the response, preparation, and management of New York’s power utility companies …”

“Everything I’ve heard and seen is LIPA will be reorganized and reshaped so it’s role will be diminished,” Senator LaValle said.

Supervisor Dougherty said he was keeping an open mind on the debate, but speculated how the public would respond to electing trustees. He compared it to the apathetic stance voters take with judges on the ballot, believing that electing judges “hasn’t improved the judiciary one bit.”