TRAVERSE CITY — A behind-the-scenes scuffle has erupted over how Traverse City Light & Power will search for and select its next leader.
On one side is the Michigan Land Use Institute, a local nonprofit agency that advocates for renewable energy as a preferred alternative to fossil fuels use. MLUI consistently lobbies against coal-burning electricity generation plants, and generally favors alternatives such as wind and solar energy, when possible.
Several city officials occupy the other side of the ring. They chafe at what they contend is MLUI's overreaching effort to influence the process to fill the spot atop the city-owned utility vacated in October, when Light & Power officials fired executive director Ed Rice.
Light & Power board members said they've been peppered with email and other similarly worded contacts from citizens whose theme -- do a broad search, start it immediately, and look for someone with experience and knowledge in renewable energy and energy efficiency and conservation -- echoes statements voiced by MLUI leaders.
"They say publicly they want an open process and a national search, but privately they tell you who they want you to pick," said city Commissioner Barbara Budros, a member of the Light & Power board. "I don't mind them expressing their opinion, but the constant lobbying and working behind the scenes to get somebody in with their particular agenda I find a little disconcerting."
"I don't need the MLUI telling us who the next executive director is going to be," she said.
Jim Carruthers, the other city commissioner on the Light & Power board, also said he believes MLUI has its own candidates in line for the job.
Hans Voss, MLUI's executive director, shared his views about the search in a letter to the utility, a Forum in the Record-Eagle, and in an appearance before the utility board on Feb. 19. Voss said MLUI officials encouraged people with concerns about the utility's future to let their opinions be known.
"Our recommendations are very reasonable and they are made very respectfully," Voss said. "The standard protocol is to post the job."
Voss said the MLUI is not pushing any particular candidate.
"We are not lobbying for any individual," Voss said. "We have not recruited candidates, but people have been in contact with me asking about the job."
The utility board will meet Tuesday at 5:15 p.m. in the Governmental Center to choose from three recommendations: extend Tim Arends' tenure as interim executive director for either six months or one year; interview Arends or other internal candidates for the job; or conduct a regional or national search beginning in April.
The board already agreed it would wait until after it receives a consultant's report on the utility's management structure, due in early April, to make any permanent hiring decision.
Voss wants Light & Power to start the search now, or at the least to take a vote to begin the search process in April.
"I really honestly do not understand why you would wait a year, how does that benefit Traverse City Light & Power to be in a transitional state for a full year," Voss said. "It drags out uncertainty at a time when TCLP needs a clear vision."
Pat McGuire, the utility board chairman, said all of the utility's board members are under pressure from MLUI and other environmental groups over the type of executive director the board should hire.
"Clearly, they feel they can have influence because we are small compared to the larger utilities in the area or the state," McGuire said. "We don't need an executive director with any bias, environmental or otherwise."
"We need an executive director who will follow the direction the board sets," McGuire said.
Mayor Michael Estes called the perceived efforts to pressure the utility "preposterous."
"Why are they trying to push their agenda on something (of which) they have no expertise; they are not a national research firm that has experience in finding executive directors," Estes said. "They need to focus on what they do well and get out of other people's business."
Several Light & Power board members have spoken in favor of giving Arends a chance to run the utility.
Budros said Arends, who also is the utility's controller, is "doing a wonderful job," and the utility's board isn't ready to make a final decision. She said the board first needs to decide whether the utility should generate power or just be a power purchaser.
Voss said that decision should be made with a permanent executive director on board. He has nothing against Arends, and MLUI would support and work with Arends if he was the board's choice following an open search.
Carruthers said there are at least four votes out of seven on the board, including his own, to conduct a national search to begin in April or later.
But one of those votes belongs to Mike Coco, whose term expires April 1. Budros calls the prospects of Coco getting reappointed "slim," based in part on his support for Rice, the former executive director.
Estes, who serves on the city commission's interview committee, said he won't vote to reappoint Coco.
The interview committee meets March 6 and the city is still accepting applications for the position.