Gov. Andrew Cuomo has blasted the Long Island Power Authority for its frustratingly slow efforts to restore power after Tropical Storm Irene, but the governor hasn’t been so quick to exert his own power on the public authority.
But the governor’s delay in installing new leadership at LIPA may give him greater freedom to criticize the public authority since he is not responsible for any of its appointees, some observers say.
Even before the storm hit, LIPA’s debt woes and high electricity rates likely prompted Gov. Cuomo to keep the unpopular authority at arm’s length, said Michael Fragin, who served until earlier this year on the board of LIPA, Long Island’s massive nonprofit electric utility.
“If the second floor doesn’t want to deal with those head-on, then they might be making an astute political move by allowing LIPA to kind of drift on its own for a while,” Fragin said.
The governor has yet to pick or reappoint a chairman to the 15-member board at LIPA, instead letting current chair Howard Steinberg stay on as a lame duck. The governor did name one new trustee in June, but another trustee spot the governor appoints is vacant and two more trustees had their terms expire last week.
“If he wants to put his stamp on the institution, he clearly has the opportunity to do that with the chairman appointment, which could be done at any point,” said Neal Lewis, a trustee appointed by the state Senate majority leader in 2009. “The governor has certainly not played any strong role in advising LIPA or directing that LIPA move in one direction or the other.”
At the same time, LIPA has gone more than a year without a chief executive at the helm. Former CEO Kevin Law stepped down a year ago to become president of the Long Island Association after announcing his resignation earlier in the spring of 2010.
Who eventually fills the CEO vacancy will be decided by LIPA’s board, but its national search was put on hold by an audit of LIPA’s rates launched this spring by Cuomo’s inspector general.
Several insiders said the lack of a permanent CEO may have contributed to LIPA’s poor communication during the storm, which left many residents with little idea when their power would return, and spread confusion in municipalities over sharing responsibility for tasks like removing felled trees.
Michael Hervey, LIPA’s chief operating officer and the interim head of its executive staff who is a finalist for the CEO position, is credited as an effective behind-the-scenes technician but much less the political player than predecessors Law and Richie Kessel.
Some also guessed LIPA’s leadership may be kept vacant or filled with holdovers so it could be more easily combined with the New York Power Authority, an idea Cuomo’s campaign hinted at last year.
Last Friday, Cuomo blasted LIPA and its for-profit contractor, National Grid, for leaving tens of thousands of Long Islanders “still in the dark.” At one point nearly half a million LIPA customers were without power, and even a week later dozens of homeowners were still waiting to turn their lights back on.
“I have also received numerous complaints about poor communication to LIPA’s customers during the restoration effort,” Cuomo said in a statement. “In the short term, National Grid and LIPA must do everything they can to restore power to the remaining customers without service and review how to more quickly restore service the next time a storm hits.”
Tags: Andrew Cuomo, Howard Steinberg, Irene, Kevin Law, LIPA, Long Island Association, Long Island Power Authority, Michael Fragin, Michael Hervey, National Grid, Neal Lewis, New York Power Authority, Richie Kessel
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