BY BRIAN McGILLIVARY
TRAVERSE CITY — Board members for Traverse City Light & Power called Executive Director Ed Rice untrustworthy and a liar before voting to fire him immediately.
Rice left the board table quietly Tuesday, then responded during public comment with a prepared statement. He said his detractors are political cronies not competent to sit on a utility board, appointed to funnel rate-payers' money into city projects. He blamed his ouster on a behind-the-scenes effort by a small group of people who want to discredit TCLP and convince voters to sell the city-owned utility.
"I believe the Light & Power staff have been set up for failure by members of the Light & Power board," Rice said.
The board voted 4-3 to oust Rice immediately, turning down a motion to give him 60 days to address their trust issue. Board members accused Rice of not providing adequate information to make decisions and sometimes providing false or misleading information in public.
"I asked some direct and straight questions and he sat there and lied about the answers," city commissioner and TCLP board member Barbara Budros said. "You continue to lie to this board."
Rice hasn't had a formal performance review in 2½ years and said it's difficult to know what the board wants, especially with three new members appointed within the last year.
The open public process is new to him and he sometimes withholds information, he said. He told Budros he must have misunderstood her question.
"I do not lie," Rice said.
Board member Bob Spence said he independently verifies projects because he can't trust the information Rice provides.
"There are things that need to be fixed, and I can't do it with a guy I don't trust," Spence said.
Chairman Patrick McGuire and city Commissioner Jim Carruthers voted with Budros and Spence to terminate Rice immediately.
Mike Coco, John Taylor and John Snodgrass voted no.
Coco said the board's evaluation of Rice reflected a high level of competency in running and managing the utility. Staff morale is high, electric rates are low, and the utility is in sound financial condition.
"We have a lot of good things going for us," Coco said. "I want to talk about the trust issue and try to fix it ... if we can."
Almost the entire staff of TCLP showed up to support Rice and several defended his integrity.
"He's absolutely honest with us, what he says he does," said employee Cory Schichtel.
Snodgrass blamed the board for not addressing the trust issue as a board.
"He came in helping, and now he gets kicked out the door," Snodgrass said. "I am really frustrated; the board created this crisis."
Rice, 66, came to Traverse City following a 32-year career in management at Consumers Energy. He stepped in on an interim basis in April 2008, after the board forced out former director Richard Smith and the deputy director resigned two weeks later. Smith had purposely bumped a member of the public at a government meeting and the deputy director had improperly taken TCLP furniture.
The board paid Smith $50,000 to resign.
Rice had no comment when asked if he planned legal action over his firing. His 60 days of pay is worth $19,333 plus benefits.
The board appointed controller Tim Arends as interim director and will meet Friday at 5:15 p.m. to discuss its next step.