Why should LIPA be afraid of Suffolk?

A bill to provide more light on the Long Island Power Authority was introduced last week by Suffolk County Legislator Edward Romaine. LIPA instantly began lobbying the legislature to reject the bill. What’s LIPA afraid of?

Introduction of the measure follows bipartisan passage last year by the New York State Legislature — and then a gubernatorial veto — of a bill aimed at bringing oversight to LIPA rate hikes. Governor David Paterson “at LIPA’s urging, vetoed it,” noted Newsday last week.

This bill would have required that any request by LIPA to increase customer rates by more than two-and-a-half percent in any 12-month period be approved by the state Public Service Commission. This “is the same standard that has applied to investor-owned and other municipal utilities for decades,” points out the Public Utility Law Project of New York in a report critical of the Paterson veto on its website.

“LIPA was supposed to become the people’s power authority. That has not happened,” declares Ian Wilder of North Babylon, co-chair of the Green Party of New York State, on his website. “When LIPA was first set up, there were supposed to be elected members of the LIPA board … That never happened. They are all appointed; with no accountability to the public … Vetoing a bill that the legislators passed to try to give some accountability is just another step backward.”

Mr. Romaine said last week: “Transparency is very important regarding LIPA.”

His bill speaks of LIPA “rates and practices” not being “in the best interests of all of its ratepayers in Suffolk County” and says an oversight panel should be established to “determine if LIPA’s actions are adverse to the county’s ratepayers and may warrant the consideration of legal action.”

Under the measure, a seven-member task force would be formed, co-chaired by the chairman of the legislature’s Consumer Protection Committee and its Economic Development, Higher Education and Energy Committee. It would hold hearings and issue a report and recommendations for action, if any. All members would be unpaid. There’d be a budget of no more than $5,000.

A legal basis for the task force, the bill notes, is a 1999 measure passed by the legislature, signed into law by then County Executive Robert Gaffney and approved by Suffolk voters in a county-wide referendum. The “Charter Law Ensuring Consumer Protection Oversight of LIPA” empowers the county to act to watchdog LIPA, a power needed for many reasons including this one: “An unelected LIPA board is incapable of providing consumer protection.”

In response to the Romaine bill, LIPA issued a statement holding: “LIPA does not see the need to create another level of government and oversight as LIPA is already subject to stringent oversight by the New York State comptroller, attorney general, Public Authorities Control Board and a 15-member board of trustees appointed by the state legislature, and we are also responsive to and appear before both Suffolk and Nassau [Legislatures’] County Energy Committees when asked.” It also mentioned the recent passage of a state Public Authorities Reform Bill.

“It would be a small, select committee with a limited budget of $5,000. If you are scared of that, what are you hiding?” commented Mr. Romaine of Center Moriches.

LIPA was set up after a lengthy grass-roots campaign to stop the Long Island Lighting Company’s Shoreham nuclear plant project. It was supposed to be a public power entity through which Long Islanders would — democratically — chart our energy future. It would be a counterpart here of the Sacramento Municipal District or SMUD in California.

As SMUD explains on its website, it was “founded with the idea that providing electric power to Sacramento was a job best done by a public utility overseen by an elected board of directors. For 60 years, we’ve done just that … Our vision is to be a leader in customer satisfaction and a positive force in promoting community benefits.”

But soon after LIPA’s formation, election of its trustees was scuttled. Its opposition to elected trustees and its moves to limit oversight put LIPA in company with the kind of authorities and commissions that public works czar Robert Moses fashioned in New York State. Soundly defeated when he ran for governor in 1934, Moses was known for getting and exercising power by establishing and running authorities and commissions insulated from the democratic process. With these, he rammed through his projects.

This kind of undemocratic arrogance is diametrically opposed to what LIPA is supposed to be about. What’s LIPA afraid of? And why can’t it return to its original democratic vision?