Peak Power: Burlington Electric Draws Vermont's Top Brass | Politics | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Peak Power: Burlington Electric Draws Vermont's Top Brass


Published November 23, 2016 at 10:00 a.m.
Updated November 29, 2016 at 12:14 p.m.

L-r: Darren Springer, Neale Lunderville, Jim Reardon, Mike Kanarick
  • L-r: Darren Springer, Neale Lunderville, Jim Reardon, Mike Kanarick

Darren Springer, 36, has landed some plumb political jobs: with the National Governors Association, in Sen. Bernie Sanders' (I-Vt.) office and, most recently, as Gov. Peter Shumlin's chief of staff. Last month, Springer announced his next career move — to the Burlington Electric Department.

He's just the latest up-and-comer to beat a path from the halls of power to BED. Within the last few years, the municipal utility has filled four key leadership positions with employees formerly connected to the Statehouse and Burlington City Hall.

In July 2014, Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger, a Democrat, appointed Republican Neale Lunderville to serve as the department's interim general manager — then cemented the deal in March 2015. Lunderville had previously served as secretary of the state agencies of transportation and administration for former governor Jim Douglas. Under Shumlin, he was in charge of cleaning up after Tropical Storm Irene. Right now, he's moonlighting as chair of
governor-elect Phil Scott's budget development committee.

Last year, Lunderville hired Jim Reardon, who had served 30 years with the state, including a decade as commissioner of finance and management, to be BED's director of finance. He also hired Mike Kanarick, formerly Weinberger's chief of staff, as communications director.

What's the appeal?

"You wouldn't expect it," Lunderville conceded before launching into his pitch: "But you also wouldn't expect to have a utility that's 100 percent renewable to have not raised rates since 2009," he said, jabbing his hands in the air for emphasis. "We are a different kind of place."

At least one thing has changed at BED since the days when former mayor Peter Clavelle, a Progressive, ran the People's Republic of Burlington. "I do think it's a bit ironic that Neale Lunderville, who's working for the Republican governor, is now managing one of the state's largest socialist enterprises," said Clavelle. "But best I can tell, he's doing a good job managing a socialist enterprise."

In a separate interview, Lunderville quipped, "Who'd have believed they'd let a Republican run it?"

Clavelle offered a reasoned explanation for the aggregation of political elite at BED: It's a stable, mission-driven organization that attracts good people and pays well.

Each of the four men got a raise — and a long, complicated title — when he joined BED. Springer will oversee five departments starting January 9 as manager of strategy and innovation and chief operating officer. He'll earn just less than $160,000 — $26,000 more than he made as Shumlin's chief adviser.

Kanarick's salary is $127,000 as the director of customer care, community engagement and communications — $45,000 more than his previous salary as the mayor's chief of staff. Reardon is getting around $130,000. Although that's more than his Montpelier salary, he said it's less than he would make in a comparable position in the private sector. Lunderville earns $142,263 — $20,000 more than his salary under Shumlin.

When it comes to pay, BED salaries have to be competitive within the utility industry, said Weinberger. But the utility is not just throwing money around. "We've dramatically reduced the management costs, compared to the system I inherited as mayor," he added.

With 20,600 customers, BED is the state's largest municipal utility. It has also made a national name for itself. In 2014, Burlington became the first city in the country with electrical power sourced from 100 percent renewable energy. The department draws from Georgia Mountain Community Wind, solar panels, the McNeil Generating Station in the Burlington Intervale and the Winooski One Hydroelectric Plant to light up the Queen City.

It recently embarked on a 10-year project to make Burlington a net-zero city — one that generates as much renewable power as it consumes overall, including what's used for transportation. The electric department will lead the citywide effort, Lunderville said, by increasing efficiency, reducing demand and building local renewable energy generation.

Last week, Politico magazine hailed the department as a "utility ready to pioneer."

BED's a natural fit for workers seeking an innovative culture within the public sphere, Lunderville said. "A lot of utilities have been described in a lot of ways I can't repeat — and a public utility inside of a government apparatus is one that would be arguably really slow," he said. "We're not like that."

Lunderville practically glowed as he showed off its electrical board, a wall-size screen of the city's electric connections and transmission grid. When a squirrel bit through a line north of downtown last month, the board allowed workers to configure the system and restore power within eight minutes, he bragged. "I love this stuff — it makes me a little giddy," he said.

As the Pine Street office emptied out at 7 p.m. last Wednesday, Lunderville planned to switch gears and spend the remainder of the evening working on a "transition" task: helping to craft the state's next budget. But if Scott offered him a job in the administration, he said he'd turn it down.

"At the state level, I was like, 'Wow, I'm making a difference,'" he said of his former jobs in Montpelier. "At a municipal level, you see your impact day to day."

BED's ability to attract politically connected talent is not a new phenomenon.

Barbara Grimes was Lunderville's predecessor as general manager of BED, and a power broker in her own right. Grimes served as a Burlington representative in the House for four terms until then-governor Howard Dean appointed her in 1992 to leadership positions within the Agency of Commerce and later the Department of Labor.

Rep. Mary Sullivan (D-Burlington) took a 14-year break between stints in the legislature to serve as communications director for BED. Tom Lyle, BED's program and policy analyst, formerly served as a hearing officer on the staff of the Public Service Board.

Kanarick's theory is that talent attracts talent.

Springer thinks about who he's working for.

"We aren't looking at the profit end of things; we're looking at serving the ratepayers, who are basically the taxpayers," Springer said. "That's a humongous structural difference. I'm certainly someone who's oriented toward public service, and a public utility position fits my strength."

The public service extends after hours, too. "We have Little League coaches, people on school boards and selectboards," Lunderville said. "Folks here value being involved in the community." BED has a team in Burlington's annual dragon boat races. One day last month, line workers donned pink helmets to call attention to breast cancer.

What do reformed political operatives bring to BED? Although the vast majority of the utility's employees don't have government experience, those who do have some applicable skills: negotiating bureaucracy and building coalitions, for example, said Gabrielle Stebbins, chair of the Burlington Electric Commission, which oversees BED. "If you've worked with folks for 10 or 20 years, you have a certain level of trust," she said.

When Lunderville started on the job, BED and community groups had already been working for years to find ways to harness waste heat from the McNeil plant, Stebbins said. But they lacked a strategy. It was Lunderville who suggested requesting proposals from companies, advancing an initiative that had "hit a brick wall year after year," Stebbins recalled. A firm named Corix will present a strategy next June.

Lunderville said he and Weinberger speak almost every week.

Relationships and alliances forged in politics can also help the utility's team do its bidding in Montpelier. "A great deal of the success of BED is a result of its ability to work with state government, with legislators, and with state regulators," Weinberger said, highlighting the department's involvement in discussion surrounding the 2016 net-metering bill and new requirements for renewable-energy siting.

Springer advocated for those same things as a Sanders staffer, and he played a key role in pushing through a net-metering bill in 2014.

Of course, BED is not the only Vermont utility that hires politicos. Green Mountain Power, the state's biggest utility, has attracted its share of former public servants turned employees, including former House Natural Resources and Energy Committee chair Robert Dostis; former House majority leader Lucy Leriche, who is currently the state's secretary of commerce and community development; Bob Rogan, who worked for Dean before he became chief of staff for Rep. Peter Welch (D-Vt.); and, for a brief period in 2011, Lunderville.

Lunderville had been at BED for a little less than a year when Shumlin announced in June 2015 that he would not seek reelection. He said then that he'd consider running for governor if Scott didn't step up.

At least for now, that appears to be one political job that could draw him back the way he came.

Corrections, November 23, 2016: Errors in a previous version of this story have been fixed, including Lunderville's current role with governor-elect Phil Scott. Several salary figures have been adjusted as well. Lyle's previous position with the PSB was described inaccurately, as was the number of BED's customers. The year that the net metering bill Springer worked on passed was also corrected.

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