Janison: On LIPA, Cuomo walks a fine line

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo speaks to members

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo speaks to members of the media about recovering efforts after superstorm Sandy in Long Beach, New York. (Oct. 31, 2012) (Credit: Getty Images)

As a matter of mundane reality, the Long Island Power Authority, a state-created public authority, exercises authority over power-supply matters in Nassau, Suffolk and part of Queens.

As a matter of public relations, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo scrambled in the wake of the Sandy disaster to avoid being publicly identified with LIPA with the determination of a man trying to sidestep a downed power line.

The governor and legislative leaders, however, do appoint LIPA's trustees -- of which there are five vacancies out of 15 slots. LIPA picks contractors, including National Grid, soon to be replaced by PSEG, and also makes key capital construction choices.

The state comptroller performs audits and has commented on LIPA disaster preparedness. The State Legislature and governors have enacted and changed laws regarding its operations and rates. Cuomo's office has been mulling the appointment of a new LIPA chief executive for two years.

Cuomo and aides knew they had some LIPA problems to solve after Tropical Storm Irene, and talked about restructuring, paring down, reforms.

But in public appearances, questions about LIPA's makeup -- some stemming from its creation decades ago -- have clashed with the governor's preferred narrative, that of channeling public anger over the pace of power restoration. And so, Cuomo saw fit to act out what critics saw as a rhetorical duck-and-cover drill.

When asked about his role in LIPA on Monday, Cuomo led with the statement that, like Con Edison and PSEG, "National Grid is the provider of power. LIPA has basically been a governmental political organization for most of its time."

Cuomo promised to hold utilities accountable for their storm response, their preparations and their communications or lack thereof.

Asked about LIPA trustee vacancies, he said, "These are systems that go back literally decades, especially in the case of Con Edison, and it is a system that doesn't work for this type of emergency crisis."

But his role in LIPA? "I am, as the head overseer, when we get stabilized, I am going to do a thorough review-slash-investigation -- a very serious one," he said, since this sort of scenario is likely to arise again.

After some prodding, Cuomo addressed accountability -- without deploying the part of the speech known as the subject. "So: Accountable for the past, yes," Cuomo said. "Accountable for the past performance, yes. Also, making the kinds of modifications we need for the future, so when this happens again, we're ready."

Could a prompt filling of the vacant LIPA board positions have made a difference, he was asked. "Nope," he said. "They haven't performed a meaningful function, in my opinion, for decades . . . National Grid runs the system . . . I'm not wed to any of the utilities, any of the jurisdictions . . . and I don't think the ratepayers are."

Both before and after the subways and buses made what was widely perceived as an impressive recovery, the MTA chairman, Cuomo appointee Joseph Lhota, was clearly identified as an important player. One key difference, insisted a Cuomo ally, was that the MTA actually administers the system, while LIPA contracts out the physical work.

Whatever the merits of that argument, questions about LIPA exemplify why being governor sometimes requires playing defense in a way Cuomo did not need to do when he was attorney general.