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OPALCO at the crossroads? More like, 'off track' | Guest Columm
By Alex MacLeod
There is growing evidence that things have gone seriously off track at the OPALCO Board of Directors. While the Board and its incumbent candidates for re-election talk about openness and transparency, the board’s actions reveal a starkly different reality.
Take, for example, County Councilman Bob Jarman’s recent experience. Bob recently wrote a letter, published by island news outlets, explaining why he was withdrawing as a candidate for the board. At the heart of his reasoning was his belief that a proposed change in OPALCO policies would prohibit him, should he be elected, from publicly discussing with OPALCO’s members his concerns about board decision-making or its decisions.
In a letter intended to rebut Jarman, Randy Cornelius, OPALCO’s respected general manager, wrote that, contrary to Bob’s assertion, “the OPALCO Board does not have a policy of not allowing Board members to speak individually to the Cooperative’s members” and that the proposed policy change is “intended to protect our membership by ensuring transparency and integrity in Board operations.”
Imagine Bob’s surprise, then, when he received a letter from an OPALCO lawyer the same day Randy’s letter was published. The letter was almost identical to Randy’s, except it ended this way:
“OPALCO takes its business reputation seriously. Your misrepresentations about OPALCO... are inaccurate, unfounded and potentially actionable. You should immediately desist from making any such false statements and misrepresentations.”
That’s lawyer talk for “shut up or we’ll sue you.”
And this wasn’t the first such legal threat issued by the OPALCO Board through its lawyer. John Bogert, twice elected by the membership to the board, got not one, but two such letters from OPALCO’s lawyer when he resigned in frustration from the board last September. John’s crime, in the eyes of the board, was to include in his resignation letter his critique of the board’s approach to entering the broadband business. John chose to shut up.
(Another board member, George Mulligan, who shared John’s frustrations, resigned last May, saying only that he and the board majority held “very different perspectives on matters of governance and management resources.” I don’t know if he received a lawyer letter.)
When asked about these legal threats at a candidate forum earlier this week on Lopez, board member Glenna Hall first implied the letter was written without the board’s knowledge. When told how unlikely it was that a lawyer would write such a letter without the client’s knowledge and approval, Judge Hall backed up and described the threats as “dumb, and you can quote me on that.”
In addition to freely throwing around threats of law suits, a common-sense reading of the board’s proposed policy change is that it essentially gags any board member from publicly expressing any disagreements with board policies or decisions unless that board member can show the potential of “substantial harm” to the cooperative if he or she were to remain silent. What that language does is to put a board member with a minority view in the position of risking being sued by OPALCO if he or she cannot meet the rather ambiguous standard of “substantial harm,” which, of course, OPALCO’s lawyers will define.
And OPALCO board members and its lawyers continue to assert this policy change is to ensure “transparency and integrity.” Really?
Already, OPALCO board meeting minutes are scrubbed of all disagreements. On top of that, the board appears to do most of its work in executive (secret) sessions. When asked at the Lopez forum about the practice, board member Bob Myhr agreed that way too much of OPALCO’s business is conducted in private and said he’d complained about it. But it hasn’t changed.
The lack of transparency extends to OPALCO’s broadband initiative as well. Since the members overwhelmingly rejected the board’s initial plan (which would have added $15 a month to everyone’s power bill), the board seems to have decided that it is doing nothing more than improving the cooperative’s core electric-system needs. All new costs now are attributed to the electric operation whether the expense was needed for that or not, and even though the expenses really only increase broadband capacity.
Few members oppose OPALCO having a lead role in expanding broadband capacity for the cooperative and its members. What we expect, however, is honesty from the board about what it is doing, what it is costing and what risk the cooperative may be taking on in the process. It is worth noting that OPALCO still hasn’t answered Bob’s question (nor the same one posed in a public letter from member Christopher Hodgkins): How much has OPALCO spent on its broadband initiative over the past five years and what impact has that expense had on members’ power rates? Instead of answering his question, OPALCO accuses him of asserting that OPALCO is cooking its books and threatens to sue him. And in this case the questioner is an elected official. And he’s asked a fair question.
It is hard to muster much trust in the OPALCO board under these circumstances. I think the members need to send the board a clear message that it needs to change its behavior by replacing the two incumbents on this year’s ballot.
One of the new board members clearly should be Steve Hudson, who got on the ballot by petition and clearly understands OPALCO’s issues. If you feel you have to vote for an incumbent, it should be Vince Dauciunas. I think he may be starting to realize the problems he’s been part of creating and has the good sense to change course.
A final note to Arthur A. Butler of AterWynne in Seattle, OPALCO’s lawyer: You can reach me at P.O. Box 157, Shaw Island, 98286. Wouldn’t want you to pad your bill by having to look up my address. I look forward to your letter.
— Editor's note: Shaw Island's Alex MacLeod, former Seattle Times editor and San Juan Ferry Advisory Committee chairman, has been an OPALCO member for 25 years.