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CMP Brings Back Former CEO To 'Restore Public Trust' In The Face Of Poor Consumer Confidence

Fred Bever
Maine Public

Central Maine Power (CMP) is turning to an old hand in its efforts to prop up its sagging reputation. David Flanagan, the company's CEO in the 1990s, will take over again, as "executive chairman" of the company's board.

In the early 1990s, CMP also struggled with poor consumer confidence. Flanagan helped to turn that around, and led its response to the 1998 ice storm. Now 72, Flanagan says his mission is much the same.

"Which is to restore public trust in an organization that is critical to the well-being and success of the people of Maine."

Flanagan spoke in a truck bay at CMP's Portland depot. His ascension comes at a time when the company's botched rollout of a new billing system helped drive its reputation to one of the lowest among utilities in the nation.

And it comes as CMP seeks permits and public support for a potentially lucrative plan to build a new transmission corridor through western Maine to serve energy contracts with Massachusetts.

"It's definitely not a game-changer," says state Representative Seth Berry, a Bowdoinham Democrat.

Berry co-chairs the Legislature's Committee on Energy, Utilities and Technology. An outspoken critic of CMP, he is leading an effort to explore the creation of a public transmission and distribution authority for Maine, through a buyout of CMP and Emera Maine's assets.

"It's certainly welcome news — I wish Mr. Flanagan success,” Berry says. “But it doesn't address the real issue facing the state of Maine which is that in order to decarbonize and to improve our worst in nation reliability we need low-cost capital and local control and right now we have neither and Mr. Flanagan's role will not bring either of those about."

In his newly-created position, Flanagan will report to Avangrid Networks, a U.S. company whose majority owner is Iberdrola — a Spain-based energy giant.

Flanagan says he is taking the job with assurances that he will have the authority to improve CMP's performance. And, he says, there are distinct advantages that come with being part of a larger enterprise.

"Having a relationship, an affiliation with a regional company that can help us lower the cost of poles and wires and other things that we need to have, sharing some back office services — those are very valuable things."

Some observers say Flanagan's hiring demonstrates the parent-company's late realization that CMP is in trouble. He has been hailed not just for his work during the ice storm, but also for making the decision to close the Maine Yankee nuclear power plant, and a one-year stint as president of the University of Southern Maine, during which he closed a severe budget shortfall.

Tony Buxton is an energy lawyer who represents an influential group of big energy users called the Industrial Energy Consumers Group. He says Flanagan proved himself an adept leader when he steered CMP through a state-mandated divestiture of its energy generation assets. He says autonomy will be key to Flanagan's success.

"It is a challenge, It's an international company, not a local company, and therein lies a big difference,” Buxton says. “But David Flanagan does not need to be doing what he has agreed to do, and I am sure he's had this discussion with Avangrid. He's not doing this for money, he's doing it for Maine. If he doesn't get the kind of control that he thinks is appropriate, I would not imagine that he would stay."

Flanagan says he is well aware that it is not only CMP's reputation at stake, but his own.

"I understand there are risks,” he says. “But to me those risks are worth taking to try to make things better."

Flanagan says he will not be responsible for managing CMP's controversial bid to build a transmission line through western Maine. That project, he says, will be overseen by a separate management team.

A Columbia University graduate, Fred began his journalism career as a print reporter in Vermont, then came to Maine Public in 2001 as its political reporter, as well as serving as a host for a variety of Maine Public Radio and Maine Public Television programs. Fred later went on to become news director for New England Public Radio in Western Massachusetts and worked as a freelancer for National Public Radio and a number of regional public radio stations, including WBUR in Boston and NHPR in New Hampshire.