Oct. 31, 2002 – The Water and Power Authority governing board has chosen as the utility's next executive director someone who has intimate knowledge of the system, its shortcomings, its strengths and its political vulnerability: Alberto Bruno-Vega, who held the job from 1989 to 1995.
Board chair Carol Burke announced on Thursday that Bruno-Vega "has accepted the terms and conditions of a three-year contract. He will begin work on Dec. 10." In a telephone interview, she said he will be paid $150,000 a year.
That was also the salary of Joseph R. Thomas Jr., who was hired in April of 2001 on a two-year contract but resigned a year later in an agreement worked out with the board that included a lump-sum severance payment of that same amount plus other benefits.
Thomas, who came to the job from Georgia, had succeeded career WAPA employee Raymond George. George retired in February of 2001 after having taken over following Bruno-Vega's resignation in 1995.
"Mr. Bruno," as he was known to his employees, has worked in the field of electric power generation, transmission and distribution for more than three decades. He was born in a Puerto Rican mountain town and grew up in San Juan. He got his bachelor's degree magna cum laude in electrical engineering from the University of Puerto Rico and immediately went to work for the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority, where he worked his way up from engineer aide to executive director, a post he held in 1979-82. Stops on the way up included stints in the electronic planning and research division and as director of planning, engineering and environmental affairs.
He left to take a position with Consolidated Edison, New York City's privately owned electric utility company, where he stayed for seven years before leaving to become executive director of WAPA for the first time. With Con Ed, he was division manager of engineering for Staten Island and manager of district system planning for Brooklyn, the Bronx, Queens, Staten Island and Westchester County.
Since 1995, he has been executive vice president of Bermudez & Longo, the largest electrical and mechanical contractor in Puerto Rico.
He also has served as a director of the American Public Power Association, a group of more than 2,000 public utilities, and on its Emergency Assistance Task Force.
Coming to the Virgin Islands from New York, Bruno-Vega told The Virgin Islands Business Journal in an interview in its Nov. 27, 1989, issue, "The monetary portion was a demotion, but the challenge was a definite promotion." He added: "Small utilities lack flexibilities, resources and support; so it's more challenging … But there is also a greater personal satisfaction. The effects of things you do are almost immediately visible."
On the job just three months when Hurricane Hugo dealt a devastating blow to the territory's power distribution system, he oversaw the $100 million recovery and rebuilding efforts carried out in cooperation with the Federal Emergency Management Agency and utilitly crews from the mainland. He left the position a few months before the territory would have to do it all over again, in the aftermath of Hurricane Marilyn.
Bruno-Vega is a soft-spoken, methodical man who spends what little leisure time he can find "immersed in technical utility journals," The Business Journal reported in profiling him barely two months after Hugo hit. He described his management style as hands-on, with a commitment to keeping the public informed through communication with the news media.
He saw a silver lining in Hugo almost from the start, noting that much of the upgrading work he was hoping to undertake ended up being paid for by FEMA and insurance as the costs of rebuilding. "Disregarding the negative impact of the storm, for the electrical power system, this will be a positive legacy," he said.
And in addition to the technical aspect, there was the human element. "Other utilities have renewed their work forces every few weeks," he said, referring to the rotating emergency crews from off-island. "Ours have been in the war zone from the beginning. We're all tired, but enthusiasm and spirit keep us going. We even have previous supervisors and retirees who have answered the call to come back and help restore the system. That's how committed our people are."
His goal at the time, he said, was "to build a hybrid utility with the best of public and private utility concepts … I don't see why a public utility can't provide the least expensive service. After all, we pay no taxes."
Under his tenure, WAPA established a college scholarship program for students who would commit to going to work for the utility upon getting their degrees.
Burke said the board conducted its own executive search this time, rather than contracting an outside firm, as it had done in the effort that led to Thomas's hiring. From 85 applicants, she said, the field was narrowed to six, then "we invited all six to come sit before the board for an interview."
All six were "well qualified for the job," she said, but the board was looking for "candidates sensitive to the culture of the Virgin Islands and its people." Bruno-Vega, "because of his previous experience, had that quality," she said.
In addition, "We had heard good things about him from WAPA employees and the community at large," Burke said. "People come and go, and we took that in consideration and felt pretty comfortable with him."
Last March 26, at the WAPA board meeting that in all probability sealed Thomas's fate, workers were protesting his management style and what they said were his plans to hire outside personnel to do the street lighting work newly added to the authority's responsibilities. Several carried placards as they marched outside the WAPA headquarters in Sub Base while the board met inside. One of those signs read "Don't sell out workers; bring back Bruno!"
Asked on Thursday about changes in employee policy that Thomas instituted, Burke said, "The board is very much aware of whatever changes were undertaken by the former executive director." It will leave in place those it feels comfortable with, she said, and leave it up to his successor to make any modifications as he sees fit.
But Burke made it clear that the next executive director will not have free rein in running the utility. The board has certain expectations of Bruno-Vega, she said, and will be setting goals for him in the area of finances, human resources and community relations, as well as setting "certain constraints" regarding his relationship with the board and "external communications."
In addition to friction with employees, Thomas came under attack from some politicians and some WAPA board members for certain questioned expenditures, including $32,000 in moving expenses for an executive hired from the mainland and the leasing of a condominium unit on St. Croix to be used instead of hotel accommodations for visiting St. Thomas utility executives.
Glenn Rothgeb, WAPA assistant executive director, served as acting chief officer between George's retirement and Thomas's arrival and has done the same since Thomas's departure last April. On Thursday, Burke thanked Rothgeb for his service during the last eight months. He will return to his permanent post when Bruno-Vega begins work on Dec. 10.
Valerie Lovett contributed to this report.
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