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Long IslandColumnistsJoye Brown

Fixing LIPA requires listening to public

LIPA crews work on a pole leaning over

LIPA crews work on a pole leaning over the westbound LIRR tracks just west of the Hickville station in Hicksville. (Jan. 31, 2013) Photo Credit: Howard Schnapp

Two meetings last week marked the first opportunity Long Islanders had to hear -- straight from Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo's staff -- about a proposal to fix the Long Island Power Authority.

Plenty of people filled meetings in both counties, offering plentiful suggestions to make the proposal better.

The question now is whether Cuomo will listen and incorporate the most significant suggestions into a proposal he hopes to push through the State Legislature soon.

Will eight days be enough time to build in more local representation, and ensure significant oversight by the comptroller and attorney general?

What about the idea, from the Long Island representative from the AARP, to amend the proposal to add -- as have other states -- a consumer advocate; and what about former Suffolk County Executive Patrick Halpin's suggestion to increase the state Public Services Commission by two members whose job would be to monitor LIPA?

There were suggestions -- good ones, considering the region's slow recession recovery -- to ensure that PSEG, the New Jersey firm slated to assume management of the region's electric service, keeps more jobs on Long Island.

There were also concerns about better promoting alternative energy. About whether the Internal Revenue Service will go along with the plan. And about whether all of the advertised savings actually are achievable.

Good questions.

And they deserve answers.

To Cuomo's credit, he did make significant revisions to his initial plan, which was to sell off LIPA's assets.

Those changes came after Cuomo advisers pitched the plan to local officials and business leaders who quickly pointed up obvious issues. A key one was that, while public utilities had access to federal funding to help strengthen infrastructure, public companies did not.

Is the administration willing to make more tweaks based on last week's public meetings?

It would not appear to be so. The administration is said to be working on getting the measure passed. And if it doesn't, according to one adviser, the administration is prepared to fault lawmakers for problems with LIPA's response during future storms.

That's ridiculous.

Cuomo, not lawmakers, waited almost until the last minute to take the plan directly to the public; and Cuomo, LIPA and PSEG -- again to their credit -- already have made necessary changes to clarify who is in charge and what must be done during storms.

In other words, there's no reason, other than strategic, to slam the measure straight through.

On Thursday, a standing-room crowd in Wheatley Heights bristled early on as Cuomo representatives took what the audience viewed as too much time talking.

"Get to the public," one man called out.

He was right on that point. And one flaw in the administration's strategy was to wait so long (and request, although not require, RSVPs) for the public meetings. Yes, they were packed with some Cuomo-invited supporters and, in Suffolk, with lots of union members seeking to save their jobs.

But none of that changed the fact that it was the public's first (and only) chance to hear straight from Cuomo's representatives what he wanted to do and why.

The conceptual pillars on bettering the region's electric service are right in Cuomo's proposal -- although I do share others' concerns on whether PSEG's expanded and more lucrative contract to manage the utility should have been let out to bid.

But that doesn't mean that the plan wouldn't be even better with a few more meaningful tweaks.

At both meetings, Cuomo representatives were careful to say that they would take public comment, questions and suggestions by telephone, transcription and by email.

The question now is what they intend to do with them.


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