Power Wash: City Council Gets Rosy Picture of CPP History as Woeful Utility Excavation Continues

click to enlarge Power Wash: City Council Gets Rosy Picture of CPP History as Woeful Utility Excavation Continues
The second hearing in an ongoing City Council series delving into Cleveland Public Power featured a rotating cast of city officials reciting a rapid-fire resume of the utility's milestones over its century-plus history.

But the prepared remarks Tuesday, which were meant to educate council on the origins and evolution of CPP, were devoid of all drama and conflict. You'd hardly know that frequent outages, dramatic price increases and elusive customer service in recent years have been vexing an increasingly impatient customer base. Nor would you know that the battle against private power in Northeast Ohio has been CPP's existential struggle since day one and continues to this day. 

Over the course of the presentation, there were scant references to FirstEnergy and its former incarnation, the Cleveland Electric Illuminating Company (CEI). Most of the historical information was presented a la promotional brochure: new commercial customers acquired each year, regional and national accolades, etc. 

"Customer service is key," Interim CPP Commissioner Joy Perry remarked, for example, noting that in 2009 the utility launched its social media presence.  Assistant Commissioner Bernie Jackson reported that in 2012, Cleveland hosted the annual "linemen's rodeo," an event sponsored by the American Public Power Association to honor electric pole climbers. In 2013, CPP added Mitchell's Ice Cream, St. Luke's Manor and Near West Theatre to its customer base. And so on. 

This promotional trivia was hardly the intel council sought. (A local professor from CSU's Levin School might have been a more helpful guest if council were interested in the history of CEI sabotage adjacent to the history of CPP. In fact, we'd recommend "The 90-Year War over Public Power in Cleveland," by Dennis Keating, Norm Krumholz and David C. Perry, originally published in the Journal of Urban Affairs and later anthologized in Cleveland: A Metropolitan Reader for an accessible historical synopsis.)

While Assistant Commissioner Rich Barton touched briefly on CEI's campaigns in the 70s to undercut Muny Light, the endurance of private lobbying was revealed only during the Q&A period. 

Senior Councilman Mike Polensek reminded his colleagues that politicians had paid steep political prices for their support of CPP and that diligent employees worked hard to preserve the important public asset. Multiple councilpeople agreed that CPP must be improved in order to be saved once again, but that it ought to be saved. 

When Councilman Brian Kazy, the committee chair, asked the presenters why there were so few CPP customers on the city's west side — Ward 17 reportedly only has one CPP customer and Kazy's Ward 16 had fewer than 100, he estimated — CPP's Rich Barton suggested that that was just the way the cookie crumbled.

"It's not that we've avoided [the west side]," he said. "That's just how details worked out in 1980s."

Polensek raised his virtual hand to correct the record. It was CEI, he said, who had embarked on a "massive lobbying effort" to restrict public power on the city's west side.

"The lobbying was intense and some council members bit the dust," he said. "Rich [Barton] was being very diplomatic and a little bit coy, but he was there. It fell on this body. The corporate community lobbied against expansion. They were up to their eardrums in it."

Kevin Kelley, kicking off the council Q&A, thanked the administration and the department of public utilities for their information and stressed to his colleagues that they'd have to fight to preserve CPP.

"Since its inception," he said, "there have been those seeking to destabilize it." Getting to the bottom of FirstEnergy's efforts to "destroy" CPP in recent years is the subject of a council investigation that Kelley intends to lead.

Kazy noted that the administration declined council's request for the full CPP briefing document discussed at last week's hearing. Redacted portions of which reportedly recommended rate increases in order for CPP to remain viable in the years ahead. Kazy said he expected the administration to continue to rely on a "trade secrets" defense and would not provide the document to council. Ward 3's Kerry McCormack said that as the oversight body, council had every right to the full version of the report and said that council should consider exercising its subpoena power if Frank Jackson refused to release it in full. 

The subject of next week's hearing will be CPP's finances. Here is the full schedule, with completed hearings italicized.

9/1: Overview; CPP Study
9/8: History of CPP

9/15: Financial Position of CPP
9/22: CPP’s Customer Service
9/29: CPP’s Purchase Power Contracts, Rates and Energy Adjustment Charge
10/6: Operations
10/13: CPP Capital Projects

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About The Author

Sam Allard

Sam Allard is the Senior Writer at Scene, in which capacity he covers politics and power and writes about movies when time permits. He's a graduate of the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University and the NEOMFA at Cleveland State. Prior to joining Scene, he was encamped in Sarajevo, Bosnia, on an...
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