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Entergy CEO Charles Rice greets people in the newly-renovated City Hall Council Chambers before City Council votes if they are to allow Entergy to build a new power plant on Paris Road, at the in New Orleans, Thursday, March 8, 2018.

Charles Rice, the president and CEO of Entergy New Orleans, will step down after eight years at the helm as the utility's parent company looks to repair its bruised reputation among local residents and officials.

A source familiar with the situation on Thursday confirmed Rice's impending departure, which follows this spring's revelation that one of Entergy's contractors hired actors last year to voice support at City Council meetings for plans to build a new power plant in New Orleans East.

Rod West, Entergy Corp.'s group president for utility operations, made a rare appearance before the council's Utility Committee on Thursday, detailing Entergy New Orleans' plans to address frequent power outages and add solar power capacity, steps council members have been demanding. 

Asked about Rice's status after the meeting, West declined to comment, and it remained unclear what Rice's departure date might be. Neither Rice nor Entergy's public relations team responded to requests for comment.

Rice was hired to lead Entergy New Orleans in 2010, succeeding West, in part because of expectations that his experience in local politics would help smooth relations with the council, which acts as the company's regulator.

Rice, who served as city attorney and chief administrative officer under Mayor Ray Nagin, had worked in Entergy’s legal department before going into city government.

But the company's approach to winning approval for a new gas-fired power plant in New Orleans East has soured its relationship with local officials.

Entergy executives have insisted they did not know about plans to hire actors who would pose as supporters of the power plant proposal, blaming a contractor for the move.

But emails among Entergy's top brass showed that the company requested specific numbers of supporters and deliberately tried to hide its role in turning them out for council meetings.

Rice also signed off personally on the plans, in which Entergy officials even bought T-shirts for power plant backers and approved what types of remarks they would make at meetings.

The council has hired a former federal prosecutor — one who led the corruption case against Nagin — to look into whether the company was more closely involved in hiring the actors than it has acknowledged. That investigation is ongoing. 

At the same time, Entergy has upset the council by moving what council members consider too slowly to install large-scale solar panels and for a spike in power outages that came after the company cut funding for equipment repairs.

The latest disagreement came this month, after Entergy proposed to increase its overall profitability rate and specifically to raise rates on Algiers customers. The company yanked the plan this week in response to criticism from council members and said it will submit a new one next month.

Rice was absent from Thursday's Utility Committee meeting at which West, who preceded Rice as CEO of Entergy New Orleans, personally apologized to the council for the utility's recent failings.

He pointed to three solar agreements that have recently been finalized: for a 20-megawatt solar facility on NASA property in New Orleans East that Entergy will build itself, a purchase agreement for another 20-megawatt installation in St. James Parish and a 50-megawatt solar facility in Washington Parish.

Those three projects, combined with Entergy’s other projects, will bring the utility's total of renewable power sources to 98 megawatts — close to the 100 megawatts it promised in 2016. They are expected to be completed by 2020 or 2021.

To improve power reliability, Entergy has allocated an additional $5 million for repairs to power lines and poles this year, on top of the $9.4 million it had set aside for repairs previously, West said.

It will deploy five electricity grid modernization projects, including 500 “smart grid” devices and 42 “self-healing” networks on the grid that are expected to reduce outages' frequency and duration by more than half, he said.

“Entergy New Orleans wants to be a good and constructive business partner for this city,” West said. “We intend to earn back your trust and respect.”

Asked by Councilwoman Helena Moreno why West showed up instead of Rice, West responded that Entergy Corp. wanted to “reinforce (its) commitment” to New Orleans.

“All of the heads of the operating companies … report to me and are part of my responsibility, and I felt that given the seriousness (of this matter) … you needed to hear from the corporation today,” West said.

Paul Murphy of WWL-TV contributed reporting.


Follow Jessica Williams on Twitter, @jwilliamsNOLA​.