Speaking Truth to the Power Company

8 Jan 2014

This morning, Dan Ryan and I did a live radio interview on WKAR’s “Current State” with Mark Bashore. (Listen to it here.) Dan Ryan is the great guy from Lansing who took it upon himself to figure out who still needed power restoration during the huge Board of Water and Light (BWL) outage a couple of weeks ago, and to advocate for those without power. It was an honor to do the show with him. The work Jeff Pratt and I did to help people without power in East Lansing was explicitly modeled on Dan’s efforts.

Dan and I were supposed to be on the show after the BWL Board Chair, Sandy Zerkle, but she didn’t show up on time, so we went first. We resisted making jokes about BWL not showing up when you’re expecting them. After we finished, we ran into Zerkle in the green room. I introduced myself and Dan to Zerkle. Might as well--I figured she probably knew who I was; last night I spoke at the BWL hearing and she had tried to cut me off.

When it became clear she was going to be there for a few minutes with us, I thought to myself, “Do we talk about the weather, or what?” And then it occurred to me: Here Dan and I were with the chair of the power company we’ve been alternately criticizing and trying to help for two weeks. Why not seize the moment and speak truth to power--or at least speak truth to the power company?

So I started by observing to her that I thought last night’s meeting was a disaster for BWL. How so?, she asked defensively. I replied that having all of those employees get up and talk about how great their boss Peter Lark is just left folks like us feeling more stonewalled and not heard. The meeting was supposed to be for people like us to talk about what we’d been through, what went wrong, and how to fix it so it doesn’t happen again. Instead it turned into a “rah rah, this company is so great!” pep rally in which some of the employees criticized those of us who felt we’d been let down by BWL.

I observed to Zerkle that if Lark was qualified to do the job, last night wouldn’t have looked like that. After a few of the employees’ defenses of their boss, Lark should have cut off all the underlings’ testimonials and said, “Listen, I appreciate the team spirit of our folks, and you know my door is always open to talk to you, but now is not the time or place for this. We need to hear from our customers.” Instead, Lark let it go on and on and on, and on and on, a situation that looked self-serving, tone-deaf, and ultimately absent of compassion for people who had really suffered. How bad was it? Last night, the PR company BWL had hired tweeted that it had not been engaged in the design of the meeting. As I said on the radio, when your PR company is doing damage control because of embarrassment caused by their relationship with you, you have a really big PR problem.

Zerkle strongly disagreed with me saying Lark is qualified for the job. In fact, she got pretty belligerent, telling me I didn’t know what I was talking about. When I told her that I thought that with this attitude--nothing went wrong! we smell so sweet!--was just going to lead to East Lansing looking to change to a new power company, she asked me what choices I thought East Lansing had, and suggested we had no choice so I should shut up. Honestly it was like talking to an abusive boyfriend who tells you he doesn’t have to treat you well because he’s as good as you’ll ever get. I replied that, with that attitude, I was sure people of this town would be interested in looking to find out our options.

I told Zerkle that if they really wanted this so-called “independent” investigation to be trustworthy by people in East Lansing, it could not be another bunch of political appointees by the mayor of Lansing. To be trustworthy, it needed to have someone like Dan Ryan on it. I said to her bluntly, “You want me, and people like me, to trust this investigation? Put Dan on it.” Dan was standing right there; I had just introduced him. Zerkle replied that she didn’t know who this Dan guy was.

Facepalm. Seriously. This just shows you what a bubble Zerkle is living in, that she doesn’t know who Dan is. She then made some noise about how people on the investigation group had to have relevant backgrounds. Although Dan’s work during the outage alone would make him qualified, Dan pointed out to her he actually has a professional background in crisis management. (His success in this case was no accident.) She kind of huffed as if to say how dare we question her or dare to make recommendations to her.

By the time Mark Bashore walked in, Zerkle was pretty much yelling at me. She caught herself, obviously realizing how bad it must look. She fumbled an apology. To that, I replied that it was fine, I had become used to being told by BWL heads that we customers and critics are the problem. “I can take it,” I told her. “I’ve been taking it from you people for at least a week.” Go ahead, tell me off.

Clueless. Clueless, inept, self-defeating, embarrassing, and not inspiring of confidence.

I’m keeping my generator. Right now, though, I could heat my house from just the steam coming off the top of my head. You know why this bothers me so much? Because, as I told her, I actually want BWL to be my power company. I believe it is full of hard-working, smart people who are truly dedicated to this community. But the way to support those people is to do an honest, accurate accounting of what didn’t work--to recognize BWL was, for too long, lacking enough crews on the ground and had a non-functional outage reporting and tracking system, and that these deficiencies are most likely what turned an emergency into a disaster--and to fix these problems. Instead what we’ve got it Lark and Zerkle telling us they smell so sweet, everything was done optimally, and we should shut the heck up.

For those as disgusted with what happened last night as I am, listen: I asked around people I trust at BWL--there are several--and I can tell you, that parade of “rah rah” from the employees was not planned in a top-down fashion. The employees of BWL are good, hardworking people, and that means their feelings are genuinely (rightly) hurt by listening to customers who felt abandoned by BWL during the crisis. They saw last night as their chance to set the record straight. They chose to get up and talk about how great the company and their boss is. It backfired. And their bosses should have seen early it was backfiring and stopped it.

But last night’s meeting just turned into more proof that their bosses--in particular Lark and his boss, Zerkle--are not doing a very good job to support the men and women who do the real work of the company.

Some open advice to BWL and their new PR company:

  1. Stop spending your energy on this “Saving Peter Lark” movie and start spending it on analyzing and fixing the broken parts of your system.

  2. Stop referring to our pain and suffering as “discomfort,” like I had a corn on my big toe for nine days when, in fact, I was living in a 40-degree house for nine days, trying to keep it and my family and my neighbors from harm.

  3. Say plainly what didn’t work, where you failed, and how harm was exacerbated by those failures.

  4. Understand that good intentions don’t keep the lights on. We appreciate hearing about your good intentions, and we believe you, but we like to hear about your good intentions only in conjunction with an acknowledgement of what isn’t working.

  5. Tell the truth about why you didn’t hire more crews earlier and how bad the outage reporting/tracking system was. Denying these problems will do you no good, as the truth will emerge. Concession is very grown-up.

  6. Hire Dan Ryan to help with the analysis and public presentation of what went wrong. Even the most cynical of us trust Dan, and Dan has always been fair, honest, and careful (and not nearly as bitchy as me).

  7. •Get a new Board Chair who actually knows how the company works, what her CEO’s contract says, and doesn’t yell at customers. If you can’t get a new one, tell her to stop talking in public. Make her go spend more time with her family or something. And send Lark to his office and tell him to put a “do not disturb” sign on the door for a while.

  8. Find a few employees who are lower down in the chain to speak to the public--people who are real workers, who tell the truth, and who we feel we can trust.

  9. Stop telling us this was a problem of communication. Saying this was a problem of communication is like saying the problem was Mother Nature. (You also need to stop saying that, by the way.) The problem was we went without power for ridiculously long periods of time when in all likelihood we didn’t have to. Better communication wasn’t going to make my ass warmer, stop my pipes from freezing, keep my child from getting depressed, or save us from generator-induced carbon monoxide poisoning. The problem was you left us without power for eight, nine, ten, eleven, and in some cases twelve or more days during very, very cold weather. Own it.

  10. When you do these things, then I think we will all feel like the people who work for BWL and the people who rely on this company for their electrical power are being appropriately respected by those with political power.


For more on the outage, including reports and hotlinks, click here.