LANSING, Mich. (WZZM) -- Barely six months ago, J. Peter Lark, general manager of the Lansing Board of Water & Light, was widely acknowledged as the visionary leader of the progressive, community-owned utility that had just christened an environmentally friendly, gas-burning, $182 million power plant.
Customers shook his hand. Members of Congress rushed to have their photos taken alongside Lark and against the background of BWL's red-brick REO Town plant. The environmental arm of the nationally respected Pew Charitable Trusts touted the plant as a model of what was possible for utilities with the courage to break their addiction to coal.
"Sometimes you'd rather be lucky than good," Lark said in an aw-shucks moment of modesty.
Lark's luck changed overnight - and his leadership was tested - on Dec. 21-22 when BWL's entire service area was slammed by an ice storm that brought down hundreds of power lines and left 40,000 customers without power.
Lark quickly declared BWL up to the challenge, but quietly slipped away the next day to New York City with his wife for a holiday vacation. Repairs dragged on past Christmas to New Year's Day.
As thousands remained powerless, public anger against Lark's leadership grew. With the help of repair crews from distant communities, BWL restored power to nearly all of its customers - but not on the timetable many people expected.
On Thursday, the State Journal broke the news of Lark's holiday trip. Three hours after the story appeared on lsj.com, Lark held a news conference in which he admitted making errors of judgment while insisting that nothing about his New York trip merited more than an apology - and certainly not his departure.
"There is a lot of work to do in implementing the changes necessary to bringing BWL's technology into the 21st century, and I am confident I can continue, with the support of the board, the leadership role I've played at the BWL during the last 6½ years," he said.
Lark's future likely depends on whether BWL commissioners, each appointed by a mayor who has voiced unwavering support for Lark in recent days, will be as forgiving of Lark as he has been of himself. The extent, if any, to which commissioners will be influenced by customer suffering and outrage remains a wild card.
While Lark admitted - "in hindsight" - that sticking to his vacation plans was a mistake, he hedged Thursday's mea culpa by saying he would not have left town if he had known power outages would continue for so many more days.
To angry consumers of BWL's power, the comment implies Lark could not have known by Monday, Dec. 23, when he was scheduled to depart for New York, that outages would continue, which brings those consumers to what Lark said on Sunday, Dec. 22.
The weather was going get colder, he said, there was a chance significant winds could develop and tree limbs would continue to fall and break power lines, including lines that had been repaired.
In other words, things might get worse before they get better. Despite his acknowledgment of worst-case scenarios, Lark and his wife flew east.
On Thursday, Lark said that at the time he left town, he "firmly believed" the outages would be "substantially resolved by Christmas Day." On Dec. 26, BWL announced it had met its goal and only about 10 percent of those who lost power - or about 4,000 customers - remained without it.
But the number of total outages was fluctuating. By Saturday, Dec. 28, 4,500 customers were without power. And when Lark addressed a special meeting of the City Council on Monday, he said about 40,000 customers had lost power, despite the fact that the highest number of outages reported by the utility was 34,800, on Dec. 22.
The ever-changing total raised questions - still unanswered - about whether BWL's outage and restoration claims were ever accurate.
Based on BWL's numbers, restoring power to the lingering 10 percent took longer - Dec. 26 to Jan. 1 - than was required to restore power to the first 90 percent.
Whether the firmness of Lark's belief was reasonable or reflected wishful thinking is one of the points to be taken up in the incident review BWL commissioners are expected to order Tuesday and that Mayor Virg Bernero has said will happen.
Bernero on Friday said he believes Lark and the utility's Board of Commissioners deserve "an opportunity to fix this."
"I do believe that this incident, this ordeal, is going to be a catalyst for a big improvement at the Board of Water & Light and perhaps long overdue improvements."
Ken Fletcher, Delta Township's supervisor, said the storm exposed "huge" shortcomings at BWL.
"It has been made clear that instead of having a well-run utility, they've been focusing their attention on glitzy REO Town redevelopments without any technology on how to even track whether customers have power or not," Fletcher said.
When the reviewers convene, Lark's accomplishments in REO Town are likely to receive continued emphasis. After all, he dedicated almost six years of his life to developing a 21st century answer to the BWL's need for a power plant that produced affordable electricity and steam while significantly reducing emissions associated with burning coal.
Six months into the commercial operation of the REO Town plant, Lark seems to have succeeded on almost every count. Even amid this winter's bitter chill, there are days when the coal-fired Eckert Power Station sits idle across Washington Avenue from Lark's new office.
But Lark didn't always get it right - even in his area of expertise.
Long before he was awash in REO Town accolades, it took the intervention of a group of citizens laden with common sense to save BWL and its owner-consumers from his original vision.
In May 2008, Lark announced BWL would build a $1 billion power plant in Delta Township and fuel it with 70 percent coal and 30 percent biomass. Construction would take five to six years. Electric rates would increase 18-21 percent. Lark called his proposal "the smartest, most economical and most environmentally sensitive option we have."
He was wrong.
The citizen review process lasted 16 months and recommended, among other things, that BWL consider natural gas, energy-efficient technologies, renewable options and fuel diversity.
For many of its owner-customers, BWL is judged on a daily basis in practical terms - household lights, furnaces and hot showers.
Consumers may care less about the source of their power than its steady delivery.
A lawyer and self-described career "utility guy," Lark understands the technology behind making steam and electricity by burning natural gas. But, fluency in combined-cycle cogeneration is a narrow professional skill set that doesn't necessarily translate to understanding the everyday concerns of residential power consumers and how they feel about the utility they own.
Take, for example, public interest in the REO Town Depot, which BWL restored at a cost of $2.8 million during construction of the new power plant.
"As has been the case before it was completed and up until today, the public reaction has centered to a greater extent on the depot than the combined-cycle cogeneration plant," he said in early December. "That was a little bit surprising to me."
When in his presence and in the messages they send, Lark says longtime residents share "heartfelt memories" of the depot.
But BWL doesn't offer tours and hasn't published any pamphlets about the depot. No historical photos have been hung on the walls.
"We are kind of busy here," Lark said in early December, pledging to make more historical information available to satisfy visitor curiosity "over the next couple of years."
Dave Behnke, a west Lansing resident whose power outage lasted more than a week, questioned whether Lark showed empathy during the aftermath of the storm.
"Whenever somebody tells me they've done everything they possibly could, I question it," Behnke said.
"I took sandwiches, I took coffee, I took doughnuts to the BWL employees. Did he (Lark)?
"The guys sure appreciated it. I did it because it was the right thing to do. When he (Lark) said he did everything, I bet you he didn't do that."
BWL spokesman Steve Serkaian confirmed Lark did not deliver food and refreshments to line crews because all of their meals were being provided and because Lark wanted to avoid "publicity stunts."
Serkaian said Lark visited many neighborhoods, often stopping "to talk to line crews, give them encouragement, a pat on the back, (and telling them to) 'keep up the good work.'"
Additionally, Serkaian said, Lark was approached by customers while visiting neighborhoods.
"He listened to their stories," Serkaian said. "Most were very supportive, positive and civil. Some customers gave him a piece of their mind, expressing anger and frustration at the length of the outage and their difficulty finding out when power would be restored.
"Most would ask the question that was on everyone's mind, 'Do you know when my power will be restored,' to which Lark responded, 'No, but we're working hard to get your power back on.'''
Like most controversies, this story has at least two sides. Some people figure Lark and the BWL did the best they could under unprecedented circumstances. Some are so angry that nothing short of Lark's firing will satisfy them.
Doug Wood, who retired Dec. 20 as the BWL's executive director of electric operations, said Lark leaving town during the crisis would not have affected the utility's response to the outages.
"I know it wouldn't affect the operations," said Wood, who worked for the utility for nearly three decades. "Some really talented people (would have been) there ... managing the operation."
He said Lark has "taken the utility to a higher level."
What impact the storm response, communication problems and Lark's trip to New York will have on his legacy remains unclear.
While Lark has apologized for his lack of judgment in leaving town, it's only in recent days that he has spoken extensively about the utility's response to the storm and the communication problems BWL struggled through during much of the outage.
And he didn't step forward to apologize Thursday for the New York trip until he knew the media were prepared to break the story of his holiday trip.
Throughout almost all of 2013, J. Peter Lark was one of the area's most prominent public officials.
Weathering the events since the ice storm may prove to be the biggest test of his tenure at BWL thus far. BWL's commissioners likely will decide whether he passed, failed or deserves an "incomplete."
State Journal reporters Matthew Miller, Kevin Grasha and Louise Knott Ahern contributed to this report.