Stories I’d like to see

The clown-show economics of storm-hit utilities, and in search of open primaries

Steven Brill
Nov 13, 2012 12:42 UTC

1.   My Alaska-Hawaii electricity repair team:

It’s 10 o’clock and the lights are out. Do you know where your local utility actually lives?

I have already written that New York State Electric and Gas — the incompetent, uncaring electric company that services our home in northern Westchester County, New York ‑- is not exactly a community utility. It is part of a Spanish energy conglomerate. Nonetheless, when a repair crew finally arrived six days after Hurricane Sandy hit and I chatted up the guys who were about to climb our poles, I was amazed to hear that one was from Hawaii and the other two from Alaska. That they had come that far seemed so absurd that I asked to see their driver’s licenses.

Adding to this theater of the absurd was the fact that the truck they were driving was owned by something called Michels Company and had come from Syracuse, New York. That’s about 250 miles from our house. And they had been commuting all week on that truck to the repair jobs in our neighborhood from a motel in Kingston, New York – which is 72 miles away.

My new Hawaiian and Alaskan friends told me they were recruited by Michels and flown to New York on the Wednesday after the storm. Michels, they explained, is a far-flung construction contractor based in Brownsville, Wisconsin (which is about midway between Green Bay and Milwaukee) with 27 field offices from Seattle to Syracuse. The company handles jobs ranging from the Keystone Pipeline  to building highways to climbing our light pole. The crew chief, who was from Green Bay, told my wife that for New York State Electric and Gas and many other utilities, Michels has become the lead outside contractor for storm repairs. From headquarters in Wisconsin, it coordinates the now-standard practice of rounding up electricians from all over the country to become an electric company’s temporary storm recovery crew.

All of this ‑- not to mention the obvious broader tableau of how we seem to accept it as the new normal when our public utilities routinely tell customers that power outages will take a week or more to fix ‑- cries out for comprehensive reporting.

Hurricanes and utilities, keeping Time, and delving into the bureaucracy

Steven Brill
Oct 29, 2012 23:48 UTC

1.   Hurricanes and the utilities

Memo to local newspaper editors and television news producers in today’s hurricane zone: Assuming your community loses its power, find out which of the CEOs responsible for the utilities in your area have generators at their homes. If your reporter can’t get on the CEO’s property to look for one, just have him or her show up outside after it gets dark and see if the lights are on.

The only catch is that the CEO has to live in your region, meaning that the company responsible for the cutbacks in repair crews that could result in the lights staying out across parts of the Northeast for days isn’t yet part of some far-flung conglomerate. As I pointed out here about a year ago, the guy responsible for the prolonged power outages last fall in my area of northern Westchester in New York sits atop a company based in Spain.

2. What’s the story at Time?

With the imminent demise of the print version of Newsweek, I’d like to know what’s happening at Time.

Obamacare word games, Arianna’s real deal, and Spanish power

Steven Brill
Nov 29, 2011 16:09 UTC

By Steven Brill

This is the second entry in a new regular column, “Stories I’d Like To See.” It’s the notebook of someone who still thinks like an editor but is over the thrill of managing a reporting staff – or the hassle of dealing with “great” story ideas that crash and burn when someone actually goes out and reports them and learns anew that even the best editors can’t hit much better than the best ballplayers (meaning three or four out of ten story ideas will actually work).

1. Obamacare’s Word Game Screw-Up:

As the debate over the constitutionality of Obamacare’s individual mandate moves toward an election-year climax in the Supreme Court, I’m surprised that I haven’t read a story recounting the deliberate but boneheaded decision by Administration officials to call the fine imposed on those not buying health insurance a “penalty” instead of labeling it a “tax.” Someone in the White House counsel’s office or the Justice Department must have spoken up and told everyone else what most constitutional lawyers who have looked at the current litigation now readily acknowledge: that there would be almost zero chance of opponents mounting a credible attack on the provision if it was called a tax. In fact, in one of the lower court skirmishes over the constitutionality of the law, conservative D.C. Appeals Court Judge Brett Kavanaugh seemed to enjoy tweaking the Obama people by readily conceding that the law would be okay had they simply called it a tax. Congress has a well-established right to tax anything or anyone.

Apparently afraid of burying the word tax somewhere in the 974-page bill, the Administration insisted on calling the fine – which, ironically will be assessed on tax returns and collected by the IRS – a “penalty” for not buying insurance. Did any of the President’s lawyers warn the former constitutional law professor about this?