Where were the leaders while you were in the dark?

Jan 3, 2014

There was a lot of attention yesterday to the fact that when tens of thousands of Lansing-area customers lost power for days at Christmas, the head of the capitol city’s utility got going.

To New York City, on vacation. Yesterday, J. Peter Lark, the president of the Lansing Board of Water and Light, finally apologized for leaving when his customers were freezing.

Lark, whose compensation is more than $300,000 a year, said “There are times when we are called upon as leaders to make personal sacrifices in the line of duty,“ and then admitted he didn’t do that. He said. “I humbly and sincerely apologize.” Did he offer to resign?  No, no, no.

Does he think his utility needs more oversight? Why, of course not!  However, he said he might have some “community forums” to get consumer input about this. And he added, “I am prepared to ask the commission for a rate increase,“ evidently so the suffering people can pay even more for lousy service. 

State Sen. Rick Jones, a Grand Ledge Republican, correctly said the utility has “a horrible communication problem.” My guess is that Peter Lark must be talking to the people who told the Detroit auto CEOs five years ago it was a fine idea to fly to Washington in their corporate jets to beg Congress for a bailout.

Peter Lark’s handling of this crisis was just plain stupid. But the politicians, especially Gov. Snyder, have to be happy that people are talking about him, because it masks the fact that their response was even worse. Traditionally, governors show up when something like this affects a large number of citizens.

They go on TV to reassure people. They declare a state of emergency, which sounds pretty reasonable when you have six hundred thousand people without power in the cold.

They visit warming centers, send in generators. Snyder did none of that. He returned to his private gated community, evidently because the official governor’s residence was in the affected area, although his staff refuses to say.

I’m not sure I’ve ever seen such tone-deaf behavior in a politician running for reelection. But he was not alone. Lansing Mayor Virg Bernero, Snyder’s hapless opponent four years ago, seemed tone-deaf to the suffering, and never talked to the governor during the crisis. And Mark Schauer, this year’s Democratic candidate for governor, dropped the ball entirely.

He had a golden opportunity to make a splash by showing up among the shivering people and asking where the governor was.

But Schauer, too, was nowhere to be seen. John Lindstrom, publisher of the sober, non-partisan Gongwer News Service, is normally anything but controversial. But last week, he posted this on the news service’s blog: “One would like to give this joyous message to his leaders and would-be leaders: Where the hell are you?

He added, “It behooves one as a leader to show publicly you are empathetic.”  Mayor Rudy Giuliani did on September 11.  New Jersey Governor Chris Christie showed that with Hurricane Sandy.

But in Michigan last week, our public and private sector leaders effectively told a lot of suffering people they didn’t care.

It will be interesting to see if the voters remember. 

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s political analyst. Views expressed in the essays by Lessenberry are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.