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LIPA may be trying to muzzle trustees, LI assemblyman says

LIPA workers set up a temporary transformer station

LIPA workers set up a temporary transformer station after superstorm Sandy in the Arverne section of the Rockaways in a 2012 file photo. Photo Credit: Charles Eckert

A state lawmaker from Long Island is expressing concern that Assembly appointees to the Long Island Power Authority board are under fire for speaking publicly on LIPA issues, and could be pressured to leave the board.

In an interview, Assemb. Robert Sweeney (D-Lindenhurst) said he would recommend that the Assembly speaker stop making LIPA trustee appointments if the board sought to muzzle or oust appointees for speaking their minds. The speaker gets two of LIPA's nine appointments, while the governor gets five and the State Senate leader, two.

"The whole key to LIPA reform as I understand it was to make this public authority more open and transparent," Sweeney said. "If you talk the talk, you've got to walk the walk. You can't use the word, then go behind the scenes to shut people up."

Sweeney's comments came a week after LIPA trustee Marc Alessi was called into a closed-door executive session of the board. Several days before, Alessi had publicly criticized a 60-acre solar energy farm in his community, Shoreham. Alessi charged that the plan was negotiated "in secret," and said residents opposed to the project were considering suing Brookhaven Town and LIPA.

Alessi, an Assembly appointment by Speaker Sheldon Silver with the recommendation of the Long Island delegation, left the board meeting shortly after the executive session, and didn't return.

Sweeney said he was made aware that the LIPA board has "occasionally threatened enforcement of a gag order" to forbid trustees from speaking publicly or privately on some LIPA issues. His appointees "are there specifically not to be yes men, but to offer their knowledge and expertise and speak privately and publicly about the issues," said Sweeney, who is not seeking re-election and will leave office in December.

"I would be awfully offended to think that anyone would try to gag a LIPA trustee from expressing opinions relevant to LIPA and LIPA ratepayers," he said. "I have no problem with them talking publicly about issues -- that's what I expect them to do."

LIPA board vice chairman Thomas McAteer Jr. countered that the concern was primarily with Alessi's threat to sue LIPA. "The issue here is definitely not a question of gag orders or freedom of speech. What we are looking at is the whole idea of trustees -- all of us -- complying with our fiduciary responsibilities as the law requires."

He added, "If there's a violation of those responsibilities, it's the board's responsibility to take a look at that, and we would."

Alessi and another Assembly appointee, Matthew Cordaro, have occasionally dissented or abstained from board votes including measures to expand debt, and commented publicly about those issues. Both declined to comment for this story.

Sweeney said he's been made aware of "some vague threats" by LIPA or board leaders to enforce a gag order "by kicking the person off the board."

"I would find that intolerable," Sweeney said. "This is the United States of America, and their title is LIPA trustee, not commissar."

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