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Lansing mayor wants to make utility more accountable to city hall

Jan 29, 2015

Lansing Mayor Virg Bernero saved the biggest news in his tenth State of the City address tonight until the end. 

Changes may be coming to the Lansing Board of Water & Light
Credit Steve Carmody / Michigan Radio

The mayor proposed three city charter changes that would make Lansing's electric utility more accountable to city hall.

The Lansing Board of Water & Light has been under fire for more than a year.  

A few days before Christmas, 2013, a massive ice storm knocked out power to 40% of BWL’s customers.  The utility stumbled to respond. In the end, thousands of people spent the Christmas holidays in the dark.   Many were still in the dark as the new year was rung in.

Earlier this month, with support of Mayor Bernero, the BWL board of commissioners fired general manager J. Peter Lark.  

At the time, BWL board chair David Price said Lark’s firing was ”the final step in righting this ship.”

Lansing Mayor Virg Bernero delivering his 10th State of the City address
Credit Steve Carmody / Michigan Radio

But Mayor Bernero believes more changes are needed. 

Bernero is proposing city charter amendments to put limits on long-term contracts and severance payments, appoint an inspector general to oversee the utility, and make the BWL’s legal counsel accountable to the city attorney.

“It is time to change the recipe and bake in some real accountability for one of our most valuable assets, Bernero told his audience at Lansing Community College. 

Ron Burns was among those in the audience  Burns is the business manager with the local IBEW, which represents 400 BWL employees. 

He’s worried the inspector general will have too much power over the current BWL board of commissioners.

“If that position waters down the independence of the independent board, then I may have concerns with that,” says Burns. 

David Price is the chairman of the BWL board of commissioners. He’s less worried that an inspector general will interfere with the independence of the board.

“I think it will be a valuable resource,” says Price. “It will help us make better decisions.”

The final decision on the mayor’s proposed changes will rest with Lansing voters, who must approve any city charter changes.