Traverse City Record-Eagle

October 26, 2012

Editorial: Ouster indicative of something deeper?


---- — Ed Rice's ouster as executive director of Traverse City's public utility perhaps came as a surprise to some, but only because the hatchet fell so suddenly, in such harsh fashion, in the relative light of day.

Traverse City Light & Power board members this week voted 4 to 3 to fire Rice, an engineer and former Consumers Energy executive who led the utility the past half-decade. Some L&P board members — including two who also happen to be Traverse City commissioners — long targeted Rice for real or imagined shortcomings, and as the utility board's membership changed in recent years, Rice's job status grew increasingly tenuous.

On Tuesday, his high-wire act ended.

Those who hold significant positions in local government often find themselves at the mercy of local politicians, many of whom demand to be coddled, protected, praised. Sometimes local politicians rightly swing the ax because bureaucrats just aren't up to snuff.

As for Rice? Depends on who you ask. L&P board member Barbara Budros, who's also a city commissioner, lashed out at Rice during Tuesday's meeting and accused him of lying to his board bosses, a charge Rice flatly denied.

Results of a recent survey of board members indicated all had some degree of concern with Rice, but a three-member minority wanted to retain him and attempt to iron out what one board member dubbed "trust issues."

After all, Rice brought good qualities to the table, board member and supporter Mike Coco said at the meeting. Rice competently managed the utility, staff morale was high and the utility is in good financial shape, Coco said.

The end came into view last week, when Rice said he met with L&P Chairman Pat McGuire and McGuire asked him to resign.

Subsequent negotiations flopped — Rice wanted two years' pay as severance, while McGuire countered with four months' pay, contingent upon Rice's agreement to keep quiet about his conflict with L&P board members.

He refused.

"What most upset some people on the board was they wanted me to go into closed session to air all this stuff privately, then reach the same conclusion but not let the public hear their comments," Rice said.

His refusal to submit to the usual backroom execution, and the resultant public, televised ugliness, is good for residents and the L&P board.

Rice's last stand should force board members to take a long look at themselves, their relationships, and their governance roles.

Most importantly, it should prompt city residents to wonder if something isn't afoot with L&P, if all this static might just be about something bigger than a city bureaucrat.