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Long IslandColumnistsJoye Brown

LIPA members back proposal to muzzle themselves, but it’s wrong

Long Island Power Authority Chief Executive Officer Thomas

Long Island Power Authority Chief Executive Officer Thomas Falcone is seen at the utility's offices in Uniondale. Credit: AP / Frank Eltman

A majority of the Long Island Power Authority board is supporting a proposal that could mute or muzzle its own members. That’s exactly the wrong way to go for an authority, which was supposed to have been “reformed” in the wake of public complaints after superstorm Sandy.

Under the proposed rules, which were slated for a vote last Wednesday until the board’s meeting abruptly was canceled, trustees would be “encouraged” to notify LIPA’s new chief, Thomas Falcone, or authority spokesman Sid Nathan of calls from the news media. And to defer to LIPA staff for handling inquiries “in matters of fact.”

Also, while trustees could express opinions, members would be asked to “refrain from publicly espousing a position” on board matters without having a “full and complete record” to make a “reasonably informed decision,” according to a report by Newsday’s Mark Harrington.

The rules feel like a clumsy attempt to ensure that LIPA consistently presents its best face to the public by thwarting trustee independence — and making the board into a de facto subsidiary of LIPA’s chairman and public affairs department.

That’s not what an independent board, whose members are supposed to be acting in the best interest of Long Island’s ratepayers, is supposed to be.

Mark Fischl, chairman of the authority’s governance committee, disagrees.

“We’ve talked about this in the past,” he said in an interview Friday, and a majority of board members are concerned “about what we say and what we don’t say to the press and what we say publicly.” Fischl said he was unhappy about public comments by some board members that he felt “reflected poorly on the authority.”

But an authority’s job isn’t to make the authority look good. Or to force public consistency in board member comments.

Does the board, with a majority appointed by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, lack faith in members’ ability to handle themselves, or media inquiries? And who, under the proposed guidelines, gets to determine the facts — in a universe where carefully culled and curated information too often passes as all the information there is?

As for members having a “full and complete record,” who decides what constitutes full and complete? For that matter, how full or complete a record could any trustee dutifully digest, given that the board meets just six times a year?

This is not the first attempt to deal with board dissent.

In 2014, Fischl asked the state’s Joint Commission on Public Ethics to determine whether then-trustee Marc Alessi violated any trustee obligations by publicly dissenting from the authority line on placing a solar farm at Shoreham.

The commission issued no finding, and Alessi ultimately left the board. His attorney said Alessi had committed no transgression.

Fischl still is steaming about Alessi’s actions.

Once anyone becomes a trustee, he said Friday, “his obligation is to the authority, that is who his master is, that is who their masters are.”

But state lawmakers already are squawking at the proposed guidelines.

“The last thing we want is for trustees to feel intimidated and for trustees to turn into a rubber stamp. That’s not in the public’s interest,” Assemb. Steve Englebright (D-Setauket) told Newsday.

On Thursday, he was joined by Assemb. Charles Lavine (D-Glen Cove), who tweeted a copy of a letter he sent to Falcone.

“The LIPA trustees are not appointed to be the ‘rubber stamps’ or the ‘yes men’ and ‘yes women’ of LIPA policies,” Lavine wrote. “ . . . This is the very type of poor policy that frightens our citizen ratepayers and presents a ‘chilling effect’ on the requisite independent judgment of the trustees.”

The fact that a majority of trustees may support the change doesn’t make it right.


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