A report on Traverse City Light and Power that rightly blames political conflicts as the biggest single cause of the public utility’s “disarray” isn’t going to be worth a whit without a good-faith effort on the part of the city commission and the Light & Power board to take the report’s findings seriously and act accordingly.
Acting accordingly, in this case, is going to mean putting the good of city taxpayers and the utility’s future ahead of agendas on both sides. That’s a lot to ask, and more than a long line of city commissioners and board members have managed to pull off in the past.
The report from Hometown Connections, a subsidiary of the American Public Power Association, correctly said the biggest issues facing the city-owned electric utility have not been about money or its executive director but the “highly visible struggles for control of the utility’s direction.”
That’s spot on. For years, the Light & Power board took on a more and more independent role that culminated in a years-long struggle over a plan to build as many as three local biomass-fueled power plants. That effort never got enthusiastic city commission support and came to grief in the face of strong public opposition.
It all underlined the disconnect between the city, the public and the Light & Power board. While the issue of the moment was the biomass plant, what was really at stake was Light & Power’s overall direction and who made that decision.
In recent years, the city commission has chafed at what it sees as inefficiencies at the utility, including what some commissioners think is a bloated, overpaid hierarchy. It hasn’t helped that Light & Power has continued to make noises about creating its own power-generation capability without first talking about the issue with city residents, the people who actually own the place.
For their part, Light & Power board members have, sometimes rightly, felt they and the utility - which by city charter is an independent entity - have been second-guessed and even bullied by the city commission. particularly over the utility’s internal workings and a $29 million contingency fund it has wisely built for future infrastructure projects.
The city commission successfully pried away $1 million from that fund last year to help pay for renovations to Clinch Park.
The Light & Power board has been too insular and too tone-deaf for its own good. The utility could easily have found a way to pick up the tab for $1 million worth of work at Clinch; and board members could have - and should have - long ago started a community conversation about the wisdom of a local power plant.
Some city commissioners have tried to force their way into Light & Power’s internal workings and, in essence, dictate policy and personnel. By charter, that’s not the commission’s role. In their defense, however, commissioners say they couldn’t watch the utility continue on what they thought was a wrong track.
The struggles are far from over. Light & Power is looking for a new executive director after firing Ed Rice, and that has sparked a new series of turf battles over the kind of leader the utility needs.
Light & Power board member John Taylor said “A common vision (between the city and the utility) would help tremendously.” That’s an understatement.
The first step must be to create that vision, and that can’t happen without a community conversation about the future. As Taylor put it, “The call to action is to pursue serious strategic planning coordinated with the city commission. We don’t have a firm strategic position on which the two governing boards are in agreement.”
It can’t stop there. Many community groups and individuals have opinions about what the future should hold, and they must be heard.
This has to be a community conversation. The city commission can’t dictate, the Light & Power board can’t dig in its heels, and citizens can’t ignore the whole thing.
Tens of millions of dollars and the future of electric service and electric rates are at stake here, and it will take a concerted, community wide effort to choose the right path.
Not finding that path can’t be an option.