BWL chief apologizes for leaving town in early days of outage crisis

9:08 AM, Jan 3, 2014   |    comments
The Lansing Board of Water and Light General Manager J. Peter Lark - LSJ Photo 1/2/14
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(LANSING STATE JOURNAL) - The day after the Lansing area went dark under a blanket of ice, Lansing Board of Water & Light General Manager J. Peter Lark and his wife flew to New York City to see their son.

They visited Rockefeller Center and attended Christmas Eve Mass at St. Patrick's Cathedral. He didn't return to Lansing until Christmas Day.

On Thursday, after the Lansing State Journal reported the trip, the embattled utility chief apologized as outrage erupted from BWL customers and some community leaders who said the trip was the final straw in a list of missteps by Lark following the Dec. 21-22 ice storm.

Lark said at a press conference Thursday afternoon that the trip was an "appearance" problem but deflected calls for him to resign.

"It was a mistake," Lark said. "It wasn't the best decision at the time."

Lansing Mayor Virg Bernero and BWL Board Chair Sandra Zerkle agreed the trip was a bad idea in hindsight but believe Lark deserves to keep his job.

"He felt that the managers had it under control when he left," said Zerkle, who knew Lark was going to New York City.

In retrospect, it was not a good decision, Zerkle said, "especially on the PR end."

She said she hasn't yet talked with the rest of the board about whether there might be other consequences.

"I would assume that there's nobody who will feel worse about this being part of BWL's image than Peter himself," she said

Lark: Outage worst in BWL's history

The storm hit Lansing the afternoon of Dec. 21 and area residents woke up Dec. 22 to widespread power outages and more than a half an inch of ice in many places.

Lark called it the worst outage in BWL history on Dec. 22.

By the time he and his wife, Susan, left for New York the next day, customers were increasingly becoming frustrated and vocal about BWL's response to the storm.

Customers complained they couldn't reach BWL to report outages or downed power lines. They complained the utility was providing little specific information about when their power would be restored. And they complained it was impossible to know whether BWL's reported outage numbers were anything more than best guesses.

In the days following the storm, BWL issued reports each day on outages and initially cited on Dec. 22 that a maximum of 25,000 customers had lost power.

Within hours, the utility adjusted that number to 34,800.

Then, on Monday of this week, Lark told a special meeting of the City Council that actually close to 40,000 customers had been without power at some point.

Some customers and city leaders on Thursday said the timing of Lark's trip reflected an early tone-deafness about the scope of suffering caused by the prolonged loss of power.

"That is stupidity on its face," said Dave Behnke, a 60-year-old west Lansing resident who attracted national attention for running down thieves who stole his generator. 

"How could you in your right mind do that? He should have canceled it. Come and take care of your city!"

Facebook photos chronicle NYC visit

Photos on Susan Lark's Facebook page show her and the couple's adult son - who lives in New York City - riding in a limousine, taking in the Christmas tree and ice rink at Rockefeller Center and attending Mass at St. Patrick's Cathedral on Christmas Eve.

A photo also shows Lark posing with his family.

All photos were posted Christmas Day, along with a description from Susan Lark that Peter Lark was heading back to Michigan that day, "to be with his BWL family, that he is so worried about."

Lark pointed to the photos as evidence he never intended to hide the trip.

He also noted that Zerkle knew of his whereabouts.

But news of the trip was a surprise to some other members of the BWL board and some Lansing City Council members.

Council President Carol Wood was in daily - "sometimes hourly" - phone and email contact with Lark in the aftermath of the storm, but the BWL chief never revealed to her that he was in New York, she said Thursday.

"As president of the council and as a BWL owner, I expect the chief to be where he is supposed to be when there is a crisis," Wood said. "I expect him to be in town."

BWL Board Vice Chair Dennis Louney said he did not know last week, even while corresponding with Lark via email, that Lark was out of town.

"As vice chair I was notified today that he was out of town," Louney said Thursday.

Lark, who BWL communications director Stephen Serkaian said earns $258,502 a year, never mentioned the trip when speaking to the press on Dec. 26.

He told reporters that his own power did not come back on until Christmas Eve, but did not reveal he was in New York City at the time.

He also did not mention the trip when he appeared before Lansing City Council at a special meeting on Monday, which was called to assess BWL's response to the outages caused by the storm.

It was not clear Thursday when Bernero learned of the trip.

Lark said that he couldn't recall whether Bernero knew, "but I think he did."

Bernero's chief of staff, Randy Hannan, said in an email late Thursday that Bernero "recalls Peter mentioning in casual conversation some time before the storm that he was planning to see his son in New York over the holidays, but he wasn't aware of whether Peter left or when he returned."

"It's worth noting," Hannan wrote, "that Peter does not report to Mayor Bernero. He works for the BWL and reports to the BWL Board of Commissioners."

Bernero has repeatedly expressed support for Lark, who has headed the utility since 2007, including in a statement issued before Thursday's press conference.

"It was certainly an ill-advised decision given what has transpired and I am confident that Peter will take full responsibility for that," Bernero said in the statement.

"I continue to believe that after six years of progress at the helm of BWL he remains the best person to assess and fix what went wrong during this crisis. I hope the BWL board of commissioners will give him the opportunity to do that. At this point I believe the BWL and our community are better served by continuity rather than more disruption."

Bernero did not respond to interview requests by the State Journal.

BWL union officials could not be reached for comment. 

Resident: Absence amid crisis 'insulting'

Meridian Township Trustee Milton Scales, who has been critical of BWL's handling of the ice storm in his area, said he knows from his experience working with the Department of Environmental Quality that the leader of an organization doesn't necessarily have to be on the ground in an emergency if the systems in place are sound.

But operations aren't the only thing that matter in a crisis, he said.

"It's a PR disaster," Scales said. "People expect to see the top figure publicly engaged in at least answering their questions and letting them know how he is going to get information to them."

Alice Dreger, an East Lansing resident who was without power for nine days and organized a neighborhood protest against BWL, said it was worse than a PR problem.

"It is insulting to those of us who were sitting at our fireplaces huddled in the dark and the cold that he was off somewhere warm and happy while we were freezing our asses off," she said. "When there is an active crisis ... I would expect the head of the utility company would stay."

Lansing State Journal

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