Conn. utility CEO out amid post-storm criticism

AP News
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Posted: Nov 17, 2011 5:37 PM
Conn. utility CEO out amid post-storm criticism

The embattled president and chief operating officer of Connecticut Light & Power, the state's largest utility, submitted his resignation Thursday after coming under fire for how the company handled widespread power outages following last month's snowstorm.

Jeffrey Butler stepped down because remaining on the job would be a distraction, the president and chief executive of CL&P parent Northeast Utilities, Charles Shivery, told The Associated Press in an interview.

"He understood it would be a challenge for him going forward in that position. He really did work hard for this company, the employees and customers," Shivery said. After the power was finally restored, Butler "stepped back and realized it would be a challenge for him" to remain on the job."

Butler was a familiar face to many frustrated CL&P customers, who watched him appear twice a day for televised briefings at the state's emergency operations center on the utility's restoration efforts after more than a foot of snow fell on the state in the days before Halloween. At the peak, CL&P had more than 830,000 outages, a record for the utility, representing about 77 percent of the company's total customers.

Scott Slifka, the mayor of West Hartford, where power was out for some customers for 10 days or more, said Butler's name "really entered the local consciousness here in the last couple of weeks" and news of his resignation had spread quickly.

"I do think maybe it's a sign that CL&P is starting to take some accountability for its actions," he said. "But his resignation will be only as good as the reforms that come with it. This wasn't about one man. It was about an entire company that needs to make systemic change."

Butler had publicly promised that 99 percent of customers would have their electricity restored as of eight days after the storm. However, that pledge fell short, prompting Gov. Dannel P. Malloy to criticize the company for its handling of the restoration efforts.

Malloy accused CL&P of failing its customers by breaking self-imposed deadlines to restore power. He said he spoke with Shivery and demanded changes be made in how the utility is managed.

Malloy had put together a special committee to examine the response by utilities, state and local governments and others after Connecticut was hit with the remnants of Hurricane Irene. He later expanded that panel's duties to investigate the response to the October snowstorm. Malloy also reached out to a private firm, Witt Associates, to review the response by CL&P and The United Illuminating Co., the state's other major utility that dodged much of the criticism surrounding the last storm. Other investigations are also planned, including by state regulators.

Shivery said Northeast Utilities has hired a consulting firm, Davies Consulting Inc., to perform an evaluation of CL&P's preparedness and response to the recent storms, which created historic numbers of electricity outages in Connecticut. Preliminary findings are expected in January and a final report in early February.

"We're not going to be sitting here, waiting for a number of reports to get busy," he said.

He also announced that William J. Quinlan will fill a new job as CL&P's senior vice president of emergency preparedness. Dana Louth will become the new vice president of infrastructure hardening, with the tasking of making the system more resistant to bad weather.

Malloy said it appeared to him that CL&P had lost credibility with its customers and had failed to communicate with local officials.

On Thursday, Malloy's senior adviser issued a statement regarding Butler's resignation, saying the governor had "made clear that he thought Northeast Utilities needed to address CL&P's management issues, and it's clear that process has begun. It's also likely that there will be other changes on other fronts as a result of CL&P's performance in the lead-up to and aftermath of the storm."

Butler's departure did not come as a surprise to some town officials, who complained about a lack of communication with the utility during the power restoration process.

"Obviously the management structure of CL&P didn't take the hint from the first storm," said Danbury Mayor Mark Boughton, referring to Irene. "It didn't really take seriously the concerns that were raised by political leaders and community leaders throughout the state, and we all ended up getting hit even worse the second time."

Scott Shanley, the general manager of Manchester, faulted CL&P for giving towns little information during the lengthy outage, saying "people wanted answers and they weren't getting them."

U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney called the management shake-up "a smart move" while Attorney General George Jepsen, whose office is participating in the various reviews, said the changes marked "a significant first step toward addressing the problems with emergency preparedness, communications and customer service."

Butler received the brunt of public's frustration over the lengthy outages, which lasted at least 11 nights for some customers. He was lampooned on Twitter by a so-called Fake Jeff Butler, who jokingly wrote about the real utility official's large salary and "gold-plated" generator.

Butler joined Berlin-based CL&P in 2009 after 27 years Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E) in San Francisco.

Northeast Utilities said it was undertaking a national search for his successor. James A. Muntz, NU's president of transmission, will serve as president and chief operating officer of CL&P in the meantime.

Leadership and communications skills will be critical qualities for the next company president, Shivery said.

"As you look at someone at this level, you're looking at leadership experience," he said. "How has this person been able to work in operations and communications?"

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Associated Press writers Stephanie Reitz in Hartford and Mike Melia in Groton contributed to this report.