Contradicting Cuomo, LIPA operations chief ‘can’t speak to how the governor got his information’

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Lizanich addresses a crowd in the Rockaways. ()
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“They ran out of poles, believe it or not,” Governor Andrew Cuomo said on Thursday, in response to a question about the Long Island Power Authority, which is still scrambling to restore power to Long Island and Queens residents in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy.*

“They ran out of poles," continued Cuomo. "You know, poles are something that a utility company would want to have, you would think. You look at what a utility company does, it basically comes down to wire and poles and crews and trucks. These are things you would want to have. How can you run out of poles?”

LIPA has been painfully slow in restoring power to Long Island and the Rockaways in the two weeks following Hurricane Sandy.

And the governor, channeling the public's understandable anger, has been beating up LIPA like a pinata.

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But Cuomo has done this without drawing attention to the fact that he, as governor, has oversight of the state's public authorities, including the M.T.A., the Thruway Authority, and, of course, LIPA.

On Sunday, following a town-hall style meeting in a parking lot in the Rockaways, Nicholas Lizanich, LIPA's vice president of transmission and distribution operations, said that Cuomo was flat-out wrong about those poles, at least as far as LIPA was concerned.

"Well, I can't speak to how the governor got his information," he told me. "But I will tell you this. We have a surplus of poles."

Lizanich has a theory. Perhaps, at some point, someone came upon a line restoration crew that was sitting idle.

"And somebody said, 'What are you waiting for?'" said Lizanich. "And the guy may have said, 'Well, LIPA doesn't have a pole for me. I can't do my work.' And that could be misconstrued that LIPA doesn't have poles. Well, that crew may not have had a pole, but he was waiting for a delivery perhaps of the poles … It's just a misunderstanding, is what I believe."

I asked Lizanich if, more broadly, he felt the criticism Cuomo was directing LIPA's way was fair, given the governor's role overseeing LIPA.

Lizanich didn't really want to talk about it.

"You know, I'm gonna tell you what," he said. "My focus right now, as head of operations for LIPA, is to get people back in service. I'm here today in the Rockaways helping people understand how we're gonna do that. And I would really welcome the opportunity to have that kind of a conversation once my customers are back in service. And then we'll have plenty of time to have the discussions around what LIPA does good and what LIPA doesn't do good, and the governor's concerns at that time. But right now, this is just, I have more important things to talk about. Sorry."

I had one last question—is the governor in charge of LIPA?

"We are an authority of the state of New York."

What does that mean?

"We are actually like an agency," he said. "The state of New York has authorities and they have agencies. So like the Port Authority, the New York Power Authority..."

"The M.T.A.?" I asked.

"...the M.T.A., those are authorities," he said. "And those are under the ownership of the state of New York. So the governor, being the chief officer of the state of New York, yes, those are under his purview. And the Long Island Power Authority is similar to those, and other authorities, so it is under the control of the state of New York."

Cuomo didn't directly answer questions at a press conference on Friday about whether he was responsible for the authority and its post-storm performance.

*CLARIFICATION: The original version of this article has been amended to note that Cuomo talked about poles in response to a question that was specifically about LIPA. Cuomo referred in his answer only to "a utility company," and "the utility companies," which the governor's office points to as evidence that he wasn't talking specifically about LIPA. Reports on the press conference elsewhere understood the governor to be talking about LIPA or LIPA and its contractor, National Grid. A recording of the press conference is here.