Messages and Messengers

On Jan. 14, Mayra Politis was on the fourth day of a five-day hunger strike, camping out in a tent in front of the condemned building that used to house her vintage clothing store, the Attic. The store—a local institution that captured national attention in a 1998 Visa ad campaign—was destroyed by an explosion at a neighboring NV Energy substation on July 11, 2010. A year later, NV Energy claimed a gas leak caused the explosion and blamed Southwest Gas. In December, Politis thought she might resolve the situation at a mediation session with both companies, but she and her lawyer had to wait while other companies negotiated in a separate room. After six hours, they went home.

The mediation didn’t resolve much, anyway. NV Energy still blames Southwest Gas, which blames an excavation company. Southwest Gas did settle with Politis’ insurance company, but that did nothing to change her position, since the insurance had already been exhausted by paying her mortgage. That will prevent Politis from losing the building, but it didn’t help with what she wants most—to rebuild it.

“I will rebuild,” she says. “I don’t care if I die in the middle of this process, I want my heirs to continue on. This has to be resolved.”

Politis is far from the only person recently angered by NV Energy. Employees accuse NV Energy of gutting pension benefits while paying large sums to its president and stockholders. An advocacy group, meanwhile, claims electromagnetic radiation from the utility’s newly installed smart-meters presents health risks. Politis’ plight has led her to work with some of these groups—drawn together by their shared anger toward NV Energy, and sometimes not much else. She has no position on smart-meters, and doesn’t mind the utility’s executives and stockholders being paid well if the company legitimately earned the money. She even admits she’s noticed some people seem interested in her story only to promote their own agendas.

But shared anger appears to be enough to keep them working together.

Ironically, what may be hurting NV Energy most is not any of these individual complaints, but bad public relations. Smart-meters should have been a win-win, saving money for both NV Energy and customers. Benefiting stockholders is usually a good thing. And NV Energy may not even be responsible for the destruction of Politis’ building. But the company has failed to effectively communicate these positive messages, possibly as a side effect of cost-cutting, which also included closing all but one customer-service office in Nevada. It remains to be seen if bad PR will lose the company more long-term than cost-cutting saved it in the short-term.

For her part, Politis finally gave up on trying to talk, and has included NV Energy in a lawsuit against companies involved in the explosion. She expects a long and expensive trial for everyone, but believes that may be the only way she can finally get things resolved.