LANSING — The general manager of the municipal power company serving Michigan's capital city has apologized for leaving the state on vacation shortly after an ice storm knocked out power to 40 percent of its customers.
Lansing Board of Water & Light's J. Peter Lark called the New York City trip a “mistake.” He spoke Thursday at a news conference, saying the trip caused an appearance problem. He rejected calls for him to resign.
“It wasn't the best decision at the time,” Lark said.
Alice Dreger, an East Lansing resident who was without power for nine days and organized a protest against the utility following the outages, said it was worse than a public relations problem.
“It is insulting to those of us who were sitting at our fireplaces huddled in the dark and the cold that he was off somewhere warm and happy,” she said.
The storm hit Dec. 21 and on Dec. 22 Lark called it the worst outage in the utility’s history. The Lansing State Journal reported this week that Lark left with his wife on Dec. 23 to visit their son.
Lark returned to Lansing on Dec. 25. During the trip, he visited Rockefeller Center and attended Christmas Eve Mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral.
Before word of the trip surfaced, the utility faced harsh criticism over its response to outages that hit 40,000 of its customers. It took more than a week to restore service. Statewide, about 666,000 homes and businesses lost power.
“It was a very bad idea to go to New York to be with my wife and son on Christmas Eve, and the appearances are not good, but I will say we have handled the storm as well as could possibly be handled from our point of view,” Lark said.
Lansing Mayor Virg Bernero and the Lansing Board of Water & Light’s board chairwoman, Sandra Zerkle, said Lark’s trip was a bad idea in hindsight, but that they believe Lark deserves to keep his job.
“When you have something going on like this, you don’t kick somebody out and try to make somebody else in charge in the middle of a crisis like this. That doesn’t make any sense either,” Zerkle said.
Lansing City Council President Carol Wood was in daily and sometimes hourly phone and email contact with Lark following the storm, but she said Lark didn’t indicate at the time that he was in New York.
“I expect the chief to be where he is supposed to be when there is a crisis,” Wood told the Lansing State Journal. “I expect him to be in town.”
On Dec. 26, Lark told reporters that his own power didn’t come back on until Dec. 24 but he didn't say he had been in New York. He also didn’t mention his absence at a Monday special meeting of Lansing City Council.
Lansing and East Lansing leaders have said they would investigate the utility’s handling of the outages. The Michigan Public Service Commission could investigate the overall response to outages in the state and might start that process at one of its meetings this month.