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Brian McGrory

The powerful and the powerless

I would have paid pretty good money to see the look on Tom May’s face when the lights went out Tuesday evening as he was in the middle of dinner at the Four Seasons Hotel.

May, just to remind you, is the $8 million-a-year chief executive of NStar. NStar, of course, is the state-regulated power utility that has found itself on a run it would just as soon forget. If it’s not a late-summer tropical storm leaving tens of thousands of people without power for days, it’s an October blizzard. And if it’s not nature, then it’s this week’s unexplained explosion that left a swath of Boston in the dark. NStar’s saving grace: Its customers have no other choice.

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What was Tom May doing at the Four Seasons Hotel Tuesday evening? Excellent question. He was there, people have been told, as a member of the board of directors of the insurance giant, Liberty Mutual, a position which, if it’s like virtually every other board, pays a handsome annual stipend. For example, May also collects $260,000 a year to serve on the board of Bank of America.

I was looking down the list of Liberty Mutual directors when I came across the name Gary Countryman, the much-respected former Liberty Mutual CEO and chairman. Gary Countryman. Wait a minute. This is a bizarre coincidence. Countryman also serves on the board at NStar. I wonder if Tom and Gary know they serve on each other’s boards. Wouldn’t that mean they’ve approved each other’s pay?

By Thursday morning, another Tom, Tom Menino, had just about had it. First, he had seen NStar’s pledges to have power restored slip from 2 p.m. Wednesday, to 10 p.m., then 5 a.m. Thursday, and finally, “later today.’’

“They’ve over-promised and under-delivered,’’ Menino barked into the phone.

Beyond that, Menino is seeing the costs mount for the small army of police officers who have guided traffic along darkened Back Bay streets. “Who’s going to pay the bills?’’ he asked. And he has seen the hundreds of NStar crew members jack-hammering holes and trenches in some of Boston’s most-traveled streets. There is little in Menino’s life as dear to him as the condition of his city’s pavement.

“They’re tearing up streets,’’ he said. “When are they going to repair them? We’ve got the marathon coming [in a month]. I’m trying to get them to understand that they’ve got to restore those streets. This is the premier business district.’’

There’s something else that Menino knows as well. In the eerie silence that hung over most of Back Bay for the better part of two days, you could all but hear the dollars evaporate into the dark sky. There are thousands of busboys, waiters, waitresses, bartenders, hairstylists, chambermaids, clothing store clerks, and manicurists who lost $50, $100, $500 dollars apiece, money they needed to pay their electric bills, buy groceries, and make their rent. There are dishwashers who earn $300 a week and lost $120 of it. That money’s not coming back, and their bills are not going away.

There are business owners, already on the edge in a mediocre economy, who lost one and two days of revenue that is forever gone. There are restaurants that had to throw expensive perishables away. Insurance isn’t covering it, not after the high deductibles.

Nobody is blaming May for the fact that an NStar transformer exploded, though there are questions that need to be answered about maintenance, the age of the equipment, and a whole lot else. And no one is saying May is a bad executive or an ungenerous person. Many say the opposite, in fact. It’s just his pay that is grotesque.

But because one of his transformers blew, good, hard-working people will get to the end of the month and find themselves short.

And what did Tom May lose in all this? He lost dessert. And there’s something patently unfair in all that.

Brian McGrory is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at mcgrory@globe.com.
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