Suffolk Closeup: Electing LIPA’s trustees

BARBARAELLEN KOCH FILE PHOTO | Greg Fischer speaks at a Suffolk 9-12 meeting last year, when he was running for Riverhead Town Supervisor.

The legal papers crackle with verbal lightning. Those bolts are aimed at the Long Island Power Authority and, especially, the maneuver that jettisoned the democratic system under which LIPA trustees were to have been selected.

It’s the latest step in a drive by three Suffolk men to run for election as LIPA trustee candidates. They argue there were fatal legal flaws in Governor George Pataki’s 1995 move to undo the original plan for LIPA to have elected trustees. He instead sought to have them appointed by the governor, State Assembly speaker and Senate majority leader.

Among other errors in the Pataki move, according to the legal papers filed with the Appellate Division of State Supreme Court, there was no home rule message from the State Legislature to allow the change, as required by the state constitution.

They highlight a statement made on the Senate floor at the time by Senator Martin Connor of Brooklyn. The Pataki move, he said, had come “in a rush, and in contravention of the rules of the Senate, in violation of the New York State Constitution, without proper committee review, without the review of members, and without proper citizen review.” Then Mr. Connor, “in regard to all the flagrant rule-breaking,” added: “So what about the rules … You know, as one member said, ‘What’s the Constitution among friends?’”

The three suing the Nassau, Suffolk and State Boards of Elections for the right to run as LIPA trustees are: Roger Scott Lewis of Southampton, an energy efficiency expert and professor at John Jay College; Greg Fischer of Calverton, a businessman and candidate last year for Riverhead Town supervisor; and attorney Bill Jurow of Mastic Beach.

State Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele Jr. of Sag Harbor, who has tried for years to get the State Legislature to pass a bill restoring elected trustees at LIPA, commented that he is dubious the courts will intervene and force LIPA elections. But the litigation is important to “raise awareness” among the public about the issue, he added. Mr. Thiele, himself an attorney, said he will continue to press in Albany for LIPA trustee elections.

“The goal of elected trustees of the Long Island Power Authority is to bring governance and transparency and therefore accountability, efficiency, economy and competition to LIPA,” the plantiffs say in their legal papers.

They charge:

• The “disenfranchisement of voters” has resulted in “an unregulated LIPA, which has been operating as if it was a secret society of elites and not a ‘public authority’ or public utility.” LIPA’s appointed trustees are “positioned to continue to bilk money out of the ratepayers, continue to poison persons and the environment if for no other reason than lack of transparency allows them to. This is the fruit of a poisoned process to repeal voter’s rights. The Court has a duty to restore constitutional equilibrium and government transparency.”

• “LIPA under its present trustee organization demonstrates a lack of controls and a pattern of crimes, which includes overcharge frauds, rebate frauds, pension frauds, no-bid contracts.” The “existing appointed trustees … are either incompetent to be trustees or complicit with malfeasance or both.” LIPA “is subject to examination under the Racketeer Influence and Corrupt Organizations Act.”

• “LIPA has the second highest rates in the nation after Hawaii and there seems to be no reasonable justification why those rates cannot be lower.” And the utility this year has been rated in a poll conducted by J.D. Powers and Associates as having “the worst customer service of any utility in the U.S.”

The legal initiative by Messrs. Lewis, Fischer and Jurow comes at a timely moment. Two weeks ago, the LIPA trustees approved a $240-million annual contract with National Grid to provide LIPA with electricity from its fossil fuel plants for 15 years.

Environmental educator Peter Maniscalco of Manorville protested the move, calling it “arrogant, irresponsible, unethical and possibly illegal.” Then, in front of the dais at which the LIPA trustees sat, Mr. Maniscalco sat on the floor holding a sign: “Long Islanders Want Clean Energy.”

Meanwhile, a comprehensive study done for East Hampton-based Renewable Energy Long Island has concluded that Long Island by 2030 could get all the electricity it needs from clean, renewable energy technologies led by solar, wind and geothermal.

Mr. Maniscalco should have been at the dais as a LIPA trustee instead of having to conduct a sit-in in front of it. And so should other Long Islanders committed to clean energy be eligible for election as LIPA trustees through the democratic process.