Karl Grossman column: Abuse of power

05/04/2014 7:00 AM |

Now that the Long Island Power Authority (LIPA) has been decimated and a private utility from New Jersey, Public Service Electric and Gas (PSEG) has been imposed on Long Island, both in a scheme by New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, it’s time Suffolk County returned to a vision of a democratically-run “public power” utility.

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In 1986, before LIPA came into being, the Suffolk County Legislature passed a resolution to give power to the public. Unanimously, the members of the legislature approved the creation of the Consumer Electric Company (CEC) of Long Island.

The resolution, championed by Gregory Blass, the reform-minded presiding offi cer of the legislature, was signed into law by Suffolk County Executive Peter F. Cohalan on July 28, 1986.

The CEC was to have an elected board of 15 members voted from districts of equal population to be established in the county.

It was to be non-partisan. Indeed, the law establishing the CEC specified that “no political party shall be entitled to nominate candidates” for its board. Further, “no candidate for director shall be permitted to receive campaign contributions from any political party or organization or any political action committee.” Also, none of the directors could profit from his or her role. “Each director shall receive no salary,” said the law.

Here was a vision in Suffolk of having a utility based on democracy — an elected board and an energy future decided by the people.

It wasn’t unique. In California there was, and still is, a democratically-run public power utility. The Sacramento Municipal Utility District (SMUD) covers California’s capital and surrounding region, an area now of 1.4 million people, close to Suffolk County’s current 1.5 million population.

In 1923, citizens voted to create SMUD as a community-owned electric service, But the big boys decided to fi ght. There was a legal war led by Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E), the giant private California utility, which delayed SMUD from happening for years. But in March 1946, the California Supreme Court denied PG&E’s final petition and nine months later SMUD fi nally began operations.

“SMUD is owned by its customers who elect a seven-member board of directors,” its website notes. “SMUD was born of this community, and is an integral part of it. More than just a bare-bones supplier of electricity, SMUD gives back to the community in ways that make life better for all who live and work in the Sacramento area.”

A nonprofi t, SMUD is committed to keeping ratepayers’ bills low, to solar, wind and other renewable energy sources, and to being transparent and responsive to the public.

But SMUD isn’t that unusual. There are 2,000 public power utilities in the United States, many of them also rundemocratically.

What happened to Suffolk’s CEC? Its creation was opposed in court by the Long Island Lighting Company (LILCO), the defunct private utility that covered Long Island. LILCO held that CEC was “pre-empted” because New York State intended to start up LIPA in 1987.

Paul Sabatino II, counsel of the Suffolk Legislature and deeply involved in the drafting of the CEC law, recalled last week the key hearing before the Appellate Division of State Supreme Court. One justice, Guy Mangano, was late. And, noted Mr. Sabatino, the tardy jurist said, from the bench that the reason he was late was because he’d been talking to then Governor Mario Cuomo “and he has a real problem” with the CEC. Justice Mangano previously was a state assemblyman and senator from Brooklyn. The court then killed CEC.

LIPA began a few months later and almost immediately Mario Cuomo killed its central component — an elected board. Instead, LIPA would be run by directors picked by politicians: most by the governor, and also by the State Assembly speaker and State Senate majority leader.

Then Andrew Cuomo, as governor, would decimate LIPA and arrange for PSEG to be the Long Island utility at the start of 2014.

PSEG has quickly shown itself to be an arrogant private utility just like LILCO. It’s time for Suffolk County to recreate the CEC. With LIPA now but a shell, the pre-emption argument is moot. As in the story of SMUD, it might take years to happen, but the dream of democratic public power is still possible.