Radio Made in Michigan
4:01 pm
Tue January 7, 2014

Carol Wood, BWL's Dennis Louney on outage

Credit Joe Linstroth/WKAR

Lansing City Council Member Carol Wood and Lansing Board of Water and Light Board Member Dennis Louney talk with Current State about the upcoming special board meeting called as a follow-up to the December power outages in the Lansing Area. The full transcript of the Current State interview is below.

2013 ended on an especially challenging note for tens of thousands of mid-Michigan residents.  According to the Lansing Board of Water and Light, nearly 40,000 people in the Lansing area spent from two to ten days without electricity after an intense ice storm the weekend of December 20 brought down utility lines across the region.

Restoration delays and poor communication triggered widespread calls for an independent review of the Lansing Board of Water and Light’s response.  A holiday visit to New York City by the utility's General Manager J. Peter Lark, in the midst of the outage, has led calls for Lark's resignation.

This evening at 5:30, the LBWL board will address these topics at its first meeting since the outages.

Lansing City Council member Carol Wood was extremely involved in exploring the utility's response to the blackouts. She's among those calling for Mr. Lark’s resignation.

Dennis Louney represents the city's first ward on the LBWL board. He says the special hearing was called because of the severity of the crisis, with more than 40% of their customer base without power. The Michigan Public Service Commission indicates that no Michigan utility has ever been hit so hard.

TRANSCRIPT

CURRENT STATE:

Dennis, tell us what the board is going to address tonight.

LOUNEY:

Well, Mark, we called a special hearing for tonight because of the severity of this crisis. We were hit by a storm that we have not seen before. We had more than 40 percent of our entire customer base go down over 100 percent of the territory, and according to the (Michigan) Public Service Commission, no utility in Michigan has ever been hit that severe(ly).

So, what we’ve asked is that we want general manager (Peter) Lark to come in and we want the public to come in, and we’ve asked general manager Lark some specific questions; specifically, what occurred, what was the communication that occurred, where were our failings, how can we fix those failings and move on. We’ve charged Mr. Lark with a couple things. We wanted information on the special credits. Consumers Energy and DTE Energy have granted special credits through the Public Service Commission of $25 as a rebate to those consumers who were out more than five days. I’m going to be introducing a resolution that will not only meet that, but we will look at adding an additional $5 per day that people are out. And some of the beauty of that is, being a local utility, being publicly owned, we don’t have to stay true to what the Public Service Commission is, we can go beyond that. So that’s one thing, the special credit.

Two, a crisis communication plan. We wanted to know after the city council meeting last week, if this occurred tomorrow, what was our plan going to be. So tonight, Peter is going to present that. We’ve also asked him to look into what are we going to do to fix this, and we want an independent review to do that. Now, that independent review – and we’ve had some talks with the mayor and with city council – we think we need to involve public officials, we need to involve citizens, we need a utility expert on there to give advice. We need to do an internal review, but we also need an external review. And our internal review will be presented to the Public Service Commission for their input. So that’s what we’re asking for tonight and we want to tell what else the public has to tell us.

CURRENT STATE:

Carol, do you plan to attend the meeting?

WOOD:

Yes, I do.

CURRENT STATE:

Do intend to speak?

WOOD:

Yes, I do.

CURRENT STATE:

OK, what do you intend to be your particular message at this meeting tonight?

WOOD:

Well, I think Dennis has hit on some of those issues that were brought up at the city council meeting. I think first and foremost, the (BWL) board has an emergency plan that dates back to 1998. I don’t believe that’s an adequate plan in this day and age, and that needs to be updated and it needs to be updated on a yearly basis. And there has to be some commitment from the board that that’s going to happen, especially as we know technology changes and a number of those things.

Second of all is the communication issue. We heard over and over again about different failures that were happening, anywhere from people calling and reporting outages and the next day finding out that they weren’t even on the list. Those issues have to be addressed and why they weren’t aware of those before that there were these problems within the system and make sure that they’re corrected.

I think lastly, whether people want to accept it or not, the fact is Peter Lark is the face of the Lansing Board of Water and Light. I believe that he should have been here the entire team. I understand the technology, I understand that you can be on cell phones and texting and e-mails, because that’s how I was communicating with Peter. But when you have exactly what Dennis indicated: a catastrophic event which is what Peter called it, and that over 40 percent of your service area is out, the last place you need to be is in New York City while others are suffering. If that meant being down and passing out coffee to the linemen, if that meant going down and answering the phone or being at the customer service desk – that’s what should have happened. And so, I am going to continue to ask for Peter’s resignation.

CURRENT STATE:

Dennis, where do you stand regarding Peter Lark as g.m. of the Board of Water and Light? Do you support him?

LOUNEY:

I do support Peter. And Carol said this, and I’ve said this before: this was a catastrophic situation. I talked yesterday with some of our linemen and some of the key people that were out there and crews, and I said, what could have been done differently? One of the things they said was, well, if we would’ve had 200 line workers…but on a daily basis, that’s unrealistic. So I think when you look at it, you have to take that into consideration. So, when we look at Peter’s performance as we have over the last six and a half years as a board, he’s done an outstanding job. He’s done some great things in regards to the new co-generation plant, you look at the wonderful first step vocational ed program we have, some of the community activities that we do. Peter’s leadership has been invaluable in gaining us awards for reliability and awards for our linemen and their work…

CURRENT STATE:

And when you’re confronted by somebody whose power was out for days and they point to an ineffective outage management system, a failed communications plan and a trip to New York City, and they say Dennis, how can you support him in light of that. How do you respond to that?

LOUNEY:

And I’ve talked to people on the phone. I’ve gotten calls and e-mails, and I’ve returned every one of those. What I’ve told them is, I understand your frustration, and while I was out of power, I was out five days, I wasn’t out 10 days or some of the people were actually out 12 days, but my understanding is most of those had their masts torn off their house.

It was inexcusable for Peter to be gone. I agree with Carol in that sense that as a public servant, as a public official in charge of a utility like this, he needed to be here, and this will certainly be noted when we evaluate him. But I don’t think that you can take one incident and without looking at the body of his work and say for that one reason, he should be fired. His being here personally, there wasn’t anything different that could have been done. But I agree: the morale aspect, the perception aspect, he was entirely wrong. And we’re going to look at this closely and make sure that he understands that that’s unacceptable.

CURRENT STATE:

Carol, do most of your constituents that you’ve spoken with agree with you that Mr. Lark should go?

WOOD:

Absolutely. That’s what I’ve heard repeatedly. And I understand what Dennis is saying about the contributions that Peter has made to the Board of Water and Light. But I liken this no different to if you had a police officer that was known repeatedly for the service that he had to the community and was involved in a hit and run accident and left the scene. That one incident can affect all the good that they have done. And at this particular point, again, during an event that was again characterized by Mr. Lark as “catastrophic,” leaving was such poor, poor judgment. And then, you know, people have been very understanding in the fact that they’ve said, you know, it would have been different if he’d been on vacation and this happened and then came back. They even understood that. But to leave when at the height of this, the majority of the people were still without power was unacceptable.

CURRENT STATE:

A week ago last night at the city council meeting, Peter Lark said the Board of Water and Light’s outage management system was overwhelmed with 40,000 outages. Here’s what he said:

PETER LARK (on tape):

“That outage management system has got to be brought further along. We’ve been working on it over the last year. It still needs more work, and I can tell you that after listening to what I’ve heard today, we will redouble our efforts to make sure that outage management system is working much better and up to its optimum level.”

CURRENT STATE:

Dennis Louney, what to your knowledge was the status of the outage management system prior to the ice storm? What work have they been doing on this for the past year?

LOUNEY:

Well, my understanding was – and Peter said this at the city council meeting – a lot of software systems that are developed, the bigger utilities will use those immediately to see how effective they are. If they aren’t working, then they get new systems in. We monitor that because we don’t want to make a large investment without being sure that this is going to be effective software. So, we’ve been monitoring this outage system that we’ve had in place that Consumers Energy initially had, and we were going to be upgrading it. So, my understanding is that moving forward, there were plans in this fiscal year to upgrade that system, to start moving towards a “smart grid” system in some areas of the city to have some “smart meters” and to slowly phase this in. Obviously, we’re constrained by rates, we’re constrained by our budget, but we felt we could handle it. We had never had a situation where we had 40,000 customers go out and we’re getting 30,000 calls all at once.

CURRENT STATE:

Well, the other side of that coin is, you had a system that you acknowledged was not optimal, and then the general manager still went out of town after that peak number of outages was reported; maybe nearly 35,000.

LOUNEY:

Well, and I think it’s important to understand that the initial readings…I got an e-mail Sunday morning that we had between 100 and 150 lines down. As the day went on, by the end of Monday, that was more than 500 lines that came down. So in talking to our line crews, again, I would point to the fact that they said they would fix one line and then have to go back to that same area the next day because the lines kept coming down. No one recognized the severity of this going into it. And we have people who’ve been with the company for 37 or 40 years that have gone out and assessed these before. So this isn’t something where they were unprepared or untrained. Based on the information we had, we thought we had this under control.

CURRENT STATE:

But I want to make clear here: has this been a regular topic of discussion at board meetings? The outage management system?

LOUNEY:

It has not been a regular topic because we’ve never been challenged like this before. So, it’s worked effectively. We knew it was getting outdated; Peter told us he was going to have a proposal coming into this year to update it. We didn’t realize at the time that we were going to be stretched to this severity of a crisis.

CURRENT STATE:

Carol, care to respond to anything you’ve heard here?

WOOD:

Well, and again, we understand that we are talking about a crisis mode…but part of emergency management is planning for the worst scenario. Now, having been on the council for the number of years I have, we go through scenarios of if the dam were to break, a plane crash at the airport, all of those things…and I think that this is something that the board should have been looking at as a worst case scenario through this process. You know, hopefully that’s one of the things that the commissioners take away from this, that that’s something that has to be done immediately.

CURRENT STATE:

Well, Dennis, more broadly, is there anyone on the board specifically assigned to oversee the utility’s emergency preparedness? How do you as the oversight board assess emergency preparedness?

LOUNEY:

Well, I think one, we need to bring in some people who have worked in the emergency planning systems. We need to hear from those experts and we need to find out what our methods are and are they effective? Obviously, they weren’t for this situation, so moving forward, assessing any emergency plan, we need to bring an expert in who can provide us useful insight and expertise. But we need to start from scratch and say where were our failings here? What are we going to do to improve?

And I can’t commend enough citizens who stepped up. I just want to do a shout out for a couple of people: Alice Dreger, Jeff Pratt in East Lansing who helped organize residents out there and helped communicate to us. But there’s many facets of it. This is something that, moving forward, we want a plan in place, but we don’t want to just put something in place without making sure that we bring in the neighborhoods, we bring in citizen committees so that we can mobilize those forces on the ground if something like this happens again. The city did a great job with their emergency planning, but again that was nine days later, I think. But for us, we have to look at this and made some hard decisions, and…

CURRENT STATE:

But specifically, there’s nobody on the board or there’s no group of board members who is charged with overseeing emergency preparedness right now?

LOUNEY:

Well, the entire board is responsible for that. But as I understand it, at the Board of Water and Light, it’s Peter Lark and Susan Devon. Those two are key people that oversee the emergency planning.

CURRENT STATE:

Now, tonight the board is also expected to ask Mr. Lark and other managers to put together an interim…an interim communications plan in the event of another outage soon. What does that interim plan need to address, Dennis?

LOUNEY:

Well, number one, it needs to show we’re listening and we care to the public. In my mind, it was deplorable the communication that went out. There was no way for people to get a hold and find out if they were on lists. Just to talk to someone…I went to the warming centers, I talked to people when they were waiting in line to talk to our customer service reps…and just to tell them, I’m sorry, let me get your address down. I’ll make sure we can follow up on this. People appreciated that. I think they just were not getting any information out there. So one, we’ve got to communicate. That means communicating through radio, that means communicating through Facebook, through Twitter; all social media has to be considered. We need to have a key person who’s going to be getting that information out and coordinating that information so…

CURRENT STATE:

This is interesting though, because I mean another serious storm…it is possible we could be subjected to really, in a matter of days. Has there been enough time; has enough time been taken and energy put into an interim communications plan that we can have faith that it’s going to work?

LOUNEY:

Well, I think if you…and I was on social media the last two nights monitoring what our response was to the public. And I’m confident that those pieces are in place; the interim plan is being acted upon, because there was communication out there. On the radio I heard who to contact if there’s a downed line, if you lose power; I saw on Facebook postings almost every hour; I saw on Twitter several postings, I saw the word getting out there on Channel 6 (WLNS) and Channel 10 (WILX). So, part of that is communicating through the media and then communicating in that trickle down effect again, of your citizenry, of your neighborhood groups, of your city council people, letting them know what can be done. And I think that was made very clear going into this last storm that just occurred that we made a mistake in the ice storm. It’s not going to happen again. Here’s how you can get a hold of us. Here’s what you need to do.

CURRENT STATE:

Carol, have you been monitoring that as well?

WOOD:

I’ve still been receiving the information from their communications person as to, you know, during the snow storm that we just had, and I’ve been posting it out there. I have not heard some of the things on the radio. I did see some information on the TV. Can something better be done? Absolutely. One of the things I do appreciate about Dennis is that Dennis is out there talking to his constituents. And when I say his constituents…every one of the board members represents either a ward or the city at large. And one of the questions I’ve asked every board member when they’re confirmed, when I talk to them, is how are you going to relate to the public? How are you going to get information out there? That’s your responsibility. You are representing them. You’re not just representing the board and the council members here and the mayor who appointed you. You’re representing that area, and it’s incumbent upon those board members to take this seriously enough and be doing that as well.

CURRENT STATE:

Peter Lark has also said the Board of Water and Light does not have an outage map. Carol, what’s your take on having an outage map? Would you say that the Board of Water and Light needs one of those?

WOOD:

I do…but I think there are some things out there that can be instituted immediately. We watched through social media someone develop one just through Google. But if you look at some other utilities, we have neighborhood groups…Averill Neighborhood that found one in Ontario that looked like an excellent map. So, I think there are things that can be done that make it easier for both the board and the public to understand what’s happening out there and to make sure that they feel their issues are being heard, and that they’re getting information back.

Again, part of this whole process has been, you know…we can understand we’re in an ice storm. We can understand all of these things. But, with no information, how do I know where to process? How do I know what to do? Can I stay here one more night, or do I need to go to a shelter? And we heard gut-wrenching stories – and Dennis was there during the council meeting – of people that stayed with grandparents that slept two hours at a time to wake up to make sure their grandparents were still alive because they couldn’t move them and some wouldn’t move. I mean, those are the types of things that we were dealing with during this whole process.

CURRENT STATE:

Dennis, will an interim communications plan be submitted tonight?

LOUNEY:

Correct. The board had requested that from Peter after the city council meeting.

CURRENT STATE:

Now, Peter Lark also mentioned you’ve been working with a consultant on a customer management system, which is part of this as well. Who is the consultant there?

LOUNEY:

I can’t tell you who the consultant is because at the time they had several consultants that they were looking at. And it’s important to understand there’s two systems: there’s an outage management system and there’s a customer management system. And the issue came down to, those two systems don’t communicate well. One provides a ticket and that ticket gets sent over to the outage management system.

For instance, we’ve talked about since the crisis occurred, can we have a system where anybody whose power is out, they can text their address in or they can e-mail their address in, and then we have captured into our system. Currently, we don’t have that capability, especially when you get a large volume. But if they send it electronically that we can capture that…then, let’s say a block of houses has their power goes out. That circuit comes on, but Mark Bashore’s power is still out, even though the circuit is on. Right now, our current system would say, the circuit is on; you should have power. But we don’t know that you’re down because you have a line that went to your house that’s down. So, if we know that and we have captured your information; your address is in there…we can send a response back to that consumer and say, “your power should be restored. If it isn’t, please contact us.” Because all it shows in the outage system is that circuit is back up and running. So, when Customer Service then looks, they say, well you should have power, which sounds very disingenuous to a customer. But, that again is the communication issue that we’re working through here. And we are going to fix this.

CURRENT STATE:

Has anyone asked you how it is that we have such an impressive new $185 million power plant that is up and running now, but these kinds of issues haven’t been addressed? Is there a disconnect there? There would appear to be a disconnect there.

LOUNEY:

Well, there…I would say there is in the sense that you go through and you prioritize what your infrastructure issues are. And again, our system had never been challenged at such a point where it was overtaxed like this. And so, we recognize now that this is our number one priority, and we’re going to address that and fix these problems.

CURRENT STATE:

Carol Wood, Senator Rick Jones says he’s drafting a bill that would put the Board of Water and Light under the oversight of the state Public Service Commission. What do you make of that proposal?

WOOD:

I have not seen the bill, of course. You know, I think there are a number of issues that the Board of Water and Light commissioners need to deal with. But the Board of Water and Light has been a jewel for the city for a number of years, and I’m not ready to throw the baby out with the bathwater at this point. I’m not sure that we need to turn this over to the Public Service Commission. Do I think there needs to be some oversight at this point in trying to understand what happened…and I think that’s why an independent investigation is extremely important through this process.

CURRENT STATE:

Dennis, I want to back up just a little bit back to the customer management system. How often was the customer management system discussed by the board over the past year, let’s say?

LOUNEY:

I would say there were a couple of times, I mean…you understand we are approached at board meetings, committee of the whole and our regular board meetings regarding numerous issues, whether it’s water or combined sewage overflow, you know, upgrading our electrical facilities and our generation going into renewable energies. And when you get to the customer service, we knew that there had been some additional training for our customer service people, we knew that we were looking at a new software system that was going to be presented in this next fiscal year that was going to marry the two systems and upgrade them without our outage system. But it was working effectively and it wasn’t a high priority on our list and it will be now.

CURRENT STATE:

Carol, have you had any second thoughts about calling for Peter Lark’s resignation?

WOOD:

I’ve not heard anything to this point that would change my mind on this.

CURRENT STATE:

Dennis, how challenging has this episode been in terms of your tenure on the board?

LOUNEY:

Well, obviously a crisis like this has challenged all our board members and all our employees, and I think they’ve risen to the occasion. You know, much like Carol…when you agree to serve on a board or you agree to serve as a city council person, you represent people. So, you need to be their voice but you also need to weigh good judgment and make the best decisions. And it’s been challenging, but when you step into that role, you have to be prepared to do that.

CURRENT STATE:

Dennis Louney represents Lansing’s First Ward as a board member on the Lansing Board of Water and Light. We’ve also been joined this morning by Lansing City Council member Carol Wood. They will both be attending this evening’s Board of Water and Light board meeting to address all of the topics we’ve been discussing in the aftermath of the December ice storm. That is set for 5:30 p.m. Dennis, Carol…thank you very much.

LOUNEY:

Thank you, Mark. Thank you, Carol.

WOOD:

Thank you, Dennis.

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