Editor's Note: This is the third in a series of five 'Ask the Candidates' articles focusing on the lone contested Summit Common Council race in the upcoming November 3 election. The two Ward 1 candidates are Democrat Susan Hairston and Republican Eileen Kelly.
TAPinto Summit sent the question(s) for each article to the candidates and is publishing their written answers as received (verbatim). The order of the candidates' answers will be rotated with each successive article.
Part Three - People Got The Power?
While Summit is not the only town that has been affected, it seems that a substantial portion of Summit often loses power -- and for extended periods of time -- when severe weather and storms hit the area.
Given the current infrastructure and logistics, what can be done to mitigate the loss of power by so many and to shorten restoration times for those that do lose power?
Eileen Kelly (R)
Soon after Hurricane Isaias struck Summit and left thousands of homes without power, I organized a community forum with both present and former elected officials to help understand the problem, possible solutions, and clear next steps.
What came out of those conversations was the following four-part plan:
First, we need to reexamine tree pruning management across Summit. Let’s get the key stakeholders together from the county and city government as well as JCP&L to develop and take action on a new plan that understands past challenges and anticipates those on the horizon. The first phase of a new pruning management plan should prioritize areas most frequently affected (i.e. streets with power outages when weak storms hit). In the second phase, we should look at streets with high transmission coverage. Finally, we should closely monitor energy distribution areas with safety hazards like dead-ends or cul-de-sacs that can be easily cut off.
Second, we should manage our relationship with JCP&L differently. Currently, one representative is overburdened with the responsibility of overseeing communication with many municipalities. The current arrangement is inefficient and ineffective, many municipalities are fighting for scarce resources in times of crisis with an understandably overwhelmed single point of contact at JCP&L. We should start by requesting an additional representative for our county that can help provide more localized and responsive service. With that new person, we should further invite and, if necessary, require quarterly updates from JCP&L at public Council meetings. At those meetings, or published separately, a regular report on health metrics of key infrastructure should be published.
Third, we should form a Certified Emergency Response Team (CERT) volunteer program to help drive regular and reliable updates during outages. Many elderly residents did not know who to go to or how to use the online reporting systems available. Having a neighbor as a resource would provide tremendous peace of mind. This approach would also help JCP&L considerably by adding more trained eyes on the ground and, with it, a more formal system to pass information back and forth. This could start by partnering with the Fire Department to recruit and maintain lists of local volunteers. When storms strike, these volunteers would be called into action to maintain a resident list by districts which is then updated quarterly. Volunteers would receive direction from the local Office of Emergency Management (OEM) during a storm and be welcomed into an “emergency management virtual room” to share what they’re seeing personally unfold in their own neighborhoods.
Fourth, we could consider evaluating our relationship with JCP&L as our electricity utility. A comparative analysis tells us what many residents already know -- JCP&L delivers just about the poorest outage performance when compared with other electricity providers in the state. They are known to have the lowest customer satisfaction--particularly in the areas of communication and the functionality of their website. Two areas that residents turn to immediately when in need. There is also concerns about corrupt business practices—fraud to be more specific—tied back to the actions of key executive at their corporate headquarters in Ohio. JCP&L provides local service, but is not a local company. Too often it shows.
These are just some of the ideas that have surfaced over many conversations, deep research, and frankly some fresh perspectives that had not been considered before. Getting electrical service in Summit “right” won’t be an easy task, but I’ve heard directly from countless residents that this is without a doubt a nagging issue that has been paid lip service for too long.
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Susan Hairston (D)
While the Utility response to Tropical Storm Isaias showed some improvement in power restoration over past incidents, it’s clear that there is room for improvement. This requires a holistic view of gaps as well as opportunities. As I see it, we have three overall directions we can pursue--and steps within each of these are already underway. First, joining with the other 24 towns receiving electric service from JCP&L to demand enhanced services, while encouraging the State Board of Public Utilities (BPU -- to whom JCP&L reports) to do the same. Second, focusing on services the City provides to ensure the safety, health and capability of both residents and businesses during a crisis. Third is considering our overall infrastructure, assessing both costs and benefits.
Earlier this week, the Council President’s ad hoc committee formed in the immediate aftermath of Isaias provided a preliminary report on meetings with JCP&L. Councilman David Naidu, member of the committee, has publicly reported on these meetings, and it’s a positive step that the Utility has committed to a broad range of improvements, from enhancing customer communication to investing in upgraded lines, equipment and technology. Going forward, we’ll continue working with the BPU to ensure the performance standards set for Utilities are actually being met, and that those standards reflect the current needs of Summit stakeholders. But more must be done. Does JCP&L have adequate contingency resources, technology, and partnerships with out-of-area providers that they can call in? Are the financial incentives available to the Utility being leveraged effectively to “raise the bar” on restoration metrics? By the way, amid the calls for Summit to switch electricity providers, it’s important to note that PSE&G customers are lodging complaints about their service just as loudly as we are. So while switching may not be “the answer” -- we believe the performance of the Utilities can and must be improved. It appears that they see the need, too.
We want to be sure that the City is well-positioned to help its various constituents get through emergencies like this most recent one, given we know that increasing changes in weather patterns will bring more aberrant weather. So we’re looking at a full range of services -- including setting up accessible charging stations, as well as the special circumstances of smaller groups -- for example, the elderly -- to ensure critical needs can be met, like delivery of medicines as well as access to heat, food and connectivity. In any emergency, different people and groups are affected in different ways, and one-size solutions won’t work as effectively as targeted ones that recognize a diversity of needs. We’ll report on new initiatives in the months ahead.
We’re also looking at infrastructure. Is the installation of below-ground lines a part of the solution, given their high cost? (Councilman Naidu’s summary notes costs of between $1M and $3M per mile!) Underground lines already run through our city center, yet some of our downtown businesses were still affected by the outage because the major power stations feeding them also were down. I believe solar power should be part of Summit’s long-term energy plan, yet there are financial and political hurdles to address with that option, too.
Our work is most effective when it’s carried out in concert with County and State offices; we can draw on their resources and join forces toward common goals. We must also take both short- and long-term views into account when making decisions, especially those with major financial implications for the City. We have a lot of work ahead of us and I am confident that we will resolve these issues and move Summit forward. On a personal note, I commend Summit residents for reaching out to each other with help and encouragement during the outage; it makes me so proud to be a part of this community.