On Board? Honesty not the preferred policy at OPALCO | As I See It

When I wrote last month saying it was my belief OPALCO Board members and senior managers had not been honest when they publicly denied any involvement in threatening letters sent to a former board member and sitting County Councilman, I knew more than I revealed.

I knew, for instance, that OPALCO’s legal bills — the ones OPALCO General Manager Randy Cornelius had denied my request to see with, he wrote, “the full support of the Board” — clearly show the involvement of OPALCO management and then-Board President Chris Thomerson’s involvement in the letter threatening legal action against former board member John Bogert if he didn’t shut up about his reasons for resigning from the board.

How did I know this?

Jerry Whitfield, who was selected by the board in March to replace Bogert, reviewed the bills relating to Bogert’s letter at my request and told me what they said.

Jerry had sent me a note offering to talk once I had received a response to my records request from Cornelius. When I received the denial and saw it was with “the full support of the Board,” I called Jerry and asked him to explain why he supported the denial.

Jerry told me it was because he was told the billing records — which he hadn’t seen — were “very summary in nature” and “wouldn’t answer your question” about whether there had been board and/or management involvement in their drafting and decision to send. If that was really the case, I wondered aloud, why not just show me the records and be done with it?

I told Jerry that my experience with legal bills was that they were pretty detailed — how else could the client asses their validity? — but that if he looked at them and told me they wouldn’t answer my question, I would take his word for it and drop the subject.

Good to his word, he looked at the Bogert records several days later and gave me a call. He began by saying the records showed “more than I had been led to believe,” and then reviewed the notes he had taken. The records were exactly as I had expected and showed that the lawyers had conferenced with management, reviewed a draft with the client and then revised it and then noted “a message from Thomerson regarding letter” the day the letter was sent.

The notion that the lawyers had acted on their own, as Thomerson, other board members and Cornelius had insisted at the May 28 Shaw Town Hall meeting, was not true.

Why didn’t I reveal these things earlier? It’s because I think Jerry Whitfield is a good guy. He is a successful businessman, an engineer, a good family man and a good neighbor.

He agreed to serve on OPALCO’s board because he wants OPALCO to continue to be successful, especially as it navigates the tricky waters of entering a business — broadband service — very different than its core mission as an electric cooperative, and I respect him for that. He wasn’t on the board when the threatening legal letters were sent and didn’t want to get dragged into that controversy, so I didn’t mention his help before.

I’m doing so now because the board, of which he is a member, is continuing to stonewall the membership about its deceptions.

So, what are we to think? That the board thinks it is perfectly OK to not be honest with members when asked a direct question? That it is perfectly OK to not be honest with a board member when he asks a question?

We don’t know, because the board and management have remained silent. Perhaps there has been something said in an executive session or other private meeting of the board — meetings that it should be noted are nowhere provided for in OPALCO’s By-Laws — but nothing has been said publicly, nor is it on this week’s board agenda.

Why does this matter?

Well, for starters OPALCO is a cooperative. The actions of its board are a direct reflection on its members. For most of OPALCO’s history, the board and management have acted with integrity, creating a cooperative in which its members could take justifiable pride. It is a relationship that deserves continued respect.

And as OPALCO continues to try to find financially responsible ways to help its members obtain more robust Internet service and perhaps also help improve the county’s emergency-response communication system, it is imperative that members trust its board and management to be open and honest about the choices, the costs, the risks and the expected benefits.

That has been, and remains, a challenge for this board. It does not help to be found to be knowingly misleading its members — as well as a sitting board member — about what in the end are relatively inconsequential matters. If they will lie about the little things, what about the big ones?

Not only is that worth pondering, it is worth hearing the board and management address directly.

— Editor's note: Shaw Island's Alex MacLeod, former managing editor of the Seattle Times, and San Juan Ferry Advisory Committee chairman, has been an OPALCO member for 25 years.


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