Tough Decisions Ahead for CL&P

The state's largest utility fell short of meeting customers' expectations.

Jeff Butler, president and chief operating officer of CL&P, made plenty of promises over the last week, after power was knocked out to hundreds of thousands of residents during a nor’easter, but he didn’t keep many of them.

“We have missed our goal and for that I apologize to everyone,” Butler said during a news conference on Sunday.

So what happened when the state’s largest utility falls short? For starters, credibility is shot in the court of public opinion.

“What I would say to the board of directors is, you should look at Mr. Butler and his management team and maybe make the right choice,” said Dan McGrath, a resident of West Hartford who went a week without power.

Customers are demanding accountability and some lawmakers are demanding future penalties and fines. Meanwhile, a few town leaders are threatening lawsuits against the utility.

“We have a lot of tough questions that need answers and we’ll do whatever we need to do to make sure it doesn’t happen again,” Simsbury First Selectman Mary Glassman said.

But whether any of it brings about actual change at the company remains to be seen.

David Cadden, a professor of management at Quinnipiac University, said it certainly could.

“I think there are some issues in training presidents to effectively deal with the media. You have a question of disclosure. When you’re in a hole, stop digging,” Cadden said.

It’s a hole that Butler has been in before and not just during Tropical Storm Irene.

Butler faced many of the same criticisms for many of the same mistakes during a 2003 storm in San Francisco, According to the San Francisco Chronicle.

At that time he was vice president of operations, maintenance and construction for Pacific Gas and Electric.

The paper reported that the company needed to improve its communication with field crews so they could tell dispatchers how long it would take to restore service. Cadden said it doesn’t bode well for the top dog.

“If I were a betting man, I wouldn’t necessarily bet on his future,” Cadden said.

Cadden said he biggest change could come at the top.

NBCConnecticut reached out to several members of the board and its trustees, who are responsible for hiring and firing and former state senator and Hartford native Sanford Cloud Jr. was the only one to return our calls.

“I’ve consulted with the chairman and we decided it’s important for management to be the voice of the company right now. It’s not appropriate for the directors to make public comment,” he said.

Chairman of the Board, Charles Shivery, didn’t return our calls, but apparently spoke to the Gov. Dannel Malloy on Monday.

“He assured me that CL&P has put a new structure in place in which senior management officials will be in the Tolland and Simsbury work centers and will be redoubling efforts in those areas,” Malloy said.

In addition to those sudden changes, Cadden said you can bet the board is also watching the bottom line closely.

“I think that they’ll be very concerned about the economic impact on CL&P for this quarter,” Cadden said.

Cadden said Irene played a role in Northeast Utilities third-quarter earnings report.

Northeast Utilities, CL&P’s parent company, reported a 6 percent share loss.

Cadden said the threat of lawsuits could jeopardize fourth-quarter earnings and the future of the company.

“It’s a question of the number of suits that may follow. Normally, it’s an act of God. Now, it’s an issue whether they responded adequately to the act of God,” Cadden said.

Any government investigation will also play a role, as will the recommendations the independent consulting agency, Witt Associates, makes.

James Lee Witt is the former directors of FEMA and he’s done this type of thing for dozens of other states.

NBC Connecticut obtained a copy of Witt Associate’s assessment of Pepco Holdings response to Hurricane Isabel in 2003.

Pepco is the utility company servicing the Washington, D.C. area and the situation mirrors what CL&P just experienced: record breaking outages, prolonged restoration and a public relations nightmare.

In the report, Witt Associates determined the utility and local government needed to do a better job of managing people’s expectations and communicating the details of restoration efforts with customers.

The agency will investigate CL&P’s plan for the storm, whether it followed that plan and what went wrong.

The governor asked the firm to come in pro bono and take a closer look. At this point, he’s so disgusted with what happened that he doesn’t want to be seen next to Jeff Butler anymore.

“I decided to make it very clear that I’m not vouching for the information they are giving. It’s no secret that I stopped being present for their briefings,” Malloy said.

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