By Alex MacLeod
When John Bogert resigned in frustration last September from the OPALCO Board, there was a sense of real loss in the Shaw community, where he is known as a smart, steady, community-spirited guy who had been twice elected to represent our district.
Later, when the island learned that OPALCO’s lawyers had sent a letter threatening John with legal action if he talked about his reasons for resigning, the sense of loss turned to anger.
That anger was still fresh when the OPALCO Board and its two senior managers came to Shaw last month for a Town Hall meeting. Since County Councilman Bob Jarman had received his own threatening letter from OPALCO’s attorneys in April, this was an opportunity to ask the board to explain its actions.
The questioning was led by Keith Gerrard, a Shaw resident who for the better part of 50 years was a partner in a prominent Seattle law firm. His questions were clear and direct, intended to determine why the two threatening letters had been sent.
Much to our astonishment, all the Board members present (Bob Myhr was absent), as well as General Manager Randy Cornelius and Assistant General Manager Foster Hildreth, denied any advance knowledge that the letters had been either written or sent. They implied that the letters were entirely the work of two Seattle lawyers who represent OPALCO, and one or two Board members indicated the Board should consider firing the attorneys for acting without the Board’s knowledge or consent.
Curious, I called and emailed the lawyers, telling them what had been said and asking if they could shed any light on the letters. The one who responded (who has since left to form his own firm) said it would be improper to comment in any way on his work on behalf of OPALCO.
Not satisfied with the lack of an explanation, I filed a document request with OPALCO to review its legal bills for brief periods surrounding the letters to Bogert and Jarman. Having worked with lawyers for many years, I knew the bills would show involvement, if any, by OPALCO Board members or management in the threatening letters.
As I said in an email to Cornelius, the billing records “are the best way to...demonstrate that no one at OPALCO—Board or management—has anything to hide and were responding honestly to the community’s questions” at the Town Hall meeting.
Ten days later, Cornelius denied my request. He said he did so with “the full support of the Board... We believe you received an answer to your question on this subject at the Shaw Town Hall Meeting,” the three-sentence rejection letter concluded.
So, what is to be made of OPALCO passing up this opportunity to show that its leaders were telling the truth on Shaw?
My belief is that the billing records show one or more Board members or senior managers were not telling the truth when they denied involvement, and that Board members who were not directly involved in the letters likely knew others were being dishonest, but said nothing. The letters themselves are replete with evidence of Board and management involvement, including that of Chris Thomerson, Board president at the time, and Cornelius.
Additionally, the Rules of Professional Conduct that guide lawyers’ work make it extremely unlikely they would have acted absent the direction of their client.
This is a sad state of affairs for any organization, much less a member-owned cooperative with more than 75 years of open, honest, member-driven leadership. Has it suddenly become okay for Board or management to be anything less than open and honest with the membership?
From my vantage point as a 25-year member, OPALCO began straying from its core values shortly after it entered the land of broadband, an entirely different business than OPALCO’s historic role. It quickly began doing much of its business in secret “executive sessions” or “working meetings,” neither of which is provided for in its By-Laws.
It also blithely entered into “confidentiality agreements” which, among other things, hid that it was in the process of committing at least $3 million on “wireless-spectrum infrastructure,” ostensibly only to improve its electrical operation. While that may be true, and it may turn out to be a good investment, OPALCO’s members were kept in the dark until the deal was announced in a press release last Friday, still minus any word on its $3 million commitment.
OPALCO also has spent more than $10,000 and perhaps as much as $20,000 for its lawyers to draft new Board policies to make critical public comment by Board members close to a criminal offense and, of course, demonstrated that intent by threatening a former elected Board member and an elected county official with legal action unless they quit making any comments perceived as critical by OPALCO or its Board.
In short, OPALCO no longer is operating as a cooperative, but rather as if it were a private corporation, and a deceptive and aggressively private one at that. It is a completely unnecessary and unfortunate change that needs to be reversed.
The Board holds its next regular meeting at 8:30 a.m. this Thursday at the OPALCO office on Guard Street in Friday Harbor. I urge all of you who care about OPALCO and its honest relationship with its members to attend and be heard.
However, while there’s time on the agenda to welcome another paid consultant, there is no time set aside for member comments.
I guess that’s our new OPALCO. Sad, really.
— 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.