A healthy debate

Published 12:00 am Friday, December 14, 2007

Much as some in city government would like for it to simply go away, reform of Franklin Power & Light, the city-owned electric utility, is a topic sure to remain in the public eye — and on the City Council’s plate — in the weeks and months ahead.

For that, we can thank electric department director Dave Howe, City Council members Raystine Johnson and Mary Hilliard, and a passionate citizens group that’s been studying the issue and pressing City Hall for some answers.

A “fact sheet” purporting to express the consensus view of the City Council on this important topic would have dismissed the concerns of many citizens as insignificant and unwarranted.

Within its first two paragraphs, the document — presumably drafted by staff members — makes two bold proclamations:

– “Council does not see any benefit to the operations of the electric department by changing its control and direction to establish an authority or commission to replace the Council.”

– “There is nothing ‘broken’ with the operation or maintenance of the electric department as it has been operated for the past many, many years. Therefore, no change in how the department is administered is warranted.”

There’s one big problem with those sweeping statements: At least two council members for whom the document supposedly speaks had zero

input on its contents. Johnson and Hilliard called their council brethren on that point during a meeting Monday night.

Even more curious is that the memo was drafted without the input of Howe, Franklin Power & Light’s veteran director, whose knowledge of municipal electric utilities is vast and widely respected in the industry.

Could Howe’s exclusion be related to the fact that he himself has called publicly for reform of the utility? We suspect so. It’s part of a disturbing trend with this city government: If you don’t toe the line with the small circle of power brokers, your opinion doesn’t count.

And if you dare buck them, be ready for some retribution. Just ask Jennifer Bernocco, who was booted from the city’s Historic Preservation Commission for criticizing city leaders in a letter to this newspaper.

Thankfully, Howe, Johnson, Hilliard and the citizens group seem unbowed. This is one important topic that won’t be swept under the rug. With municipal elections fast approaching, the timing for a thorough discussion of the electric department and its future couldn’t be better.