Of electricity, internet and elections: islanders sound-off on eve of the OPALCO annual meeting

As of today

An informal survey of five San Juan County residents about the upcoming Orcas Power and Light Cooperative board election reveals general support for the job Orcas Power and Light is doing and interest in faster internet connections – and concern about increased bills for electricity.

Steve Buck, Bill LaPorte, Steve Hushebeck, Tom Kirschner and Norris Palmer responded readily to questions about their interest in OPALCO’s upcoming annual meeting and board of directors election. Six candidates and two member-initiated bylaw amendments are on the ballot.

Steve Buck has already cast his ballot, and does not plan to attend the May 3 annual meeting.

“I think our co-op is well run and it’s something to be proud of, and I want it to continue to be well run,” Buck said. “High speed broadband is crucial to the San Juans, just as it is across the nation, but I want more information about what the cost of expanding broadband would be, what the cost of connecting to OPALCO would be and how it will be paid for. OPALCO should be doing a cost-benefit analysis of what it’s doing now and in the future.”

Buck, a principal at Coldwell-Banker San Juan Islands, continued: “The benefits to people and businesses here are huge. Slow speed doesn’t work for business and high speed service could attract businesses and people who work from home. I want alternatives. It would be great if OPALCO and CenturyLink would work together on this. We also need to focus on public safety – being able to reach people fast in an emergency.”

Buck didn’t ignore rising electricity rates, either. “I’m also concerned about the cost of electricity here and I expect the board to deal with that issue too.”

Sea-Cure Services owner Bill LaPorte is not a member of OPALCO, so he won’t be voting in the election, but he is interested in the broadband issue.

“Although I know the county needs high-speed broadband deployment, I already have it through Zito cable,” LaPorte said. “A non-profit cooperative should not be competing with private industry.”

Friday Harbor Town Councilman Steve Hushebeck said he’s very interested in the board election and will attend the annual meeting if he can. He says he’s tried to be fully informed on the broadband issue.

“I’m in favor of what OPALCO is doing,” Hushebeck said, “and I agree with Mark Madsen’s op-ed in the paper [The Journal, April 16]. Internet connectivity is fast becoming just what electric connectivity was a hundred years ago when OPALCO first provided electricity to the entire county. The broadband backbone needs to be installed for both the electricity side and the broadband side. We need to have all these services available and the public needs to be educated on the importance of broadband to everyone. Some people may not need it now, but everyone must have access to it. And nobody else is going to do it.”

Tom Kirschner, executive director of San Juan Island Chamber of Commerce, said, “I’m happy that OPALCO is connecting businesses and government in Friday Harbor and will be connecting more people on more islands. Broadband internet is very, very important to the business community here – and it needs to be done now.”

Norris Palmer, a westside San Juan Island resident, will send in his ballot and he’s interested in broadband deployment, but wants more information.

“I went to a couple of meetings about broadband, but all of a sudden they dropped it and I don’t know what their plans are now,” Palmer said. “I’m not sure how they will get broadband to my neighborhood, but I have DSL internet with Centurytel [now CenturyLink] and it works fine for us. It’s fast enough. I’m on board with Centurytel and I think OPALCO should work with Centurytel and Rock Island [internet reseller Rock Island Technology Solutions] and not try to do it by themselves.”

Palmer is not critical of OPALCO, though: “I’m pleased with OPALCO and I’m not against anything they’re doing, but OPALCO is our electric utility and they must first do electricity. I don’t want electricity rate increases and I hope they will justify any rate increases. First, please show me that OPALCO needs to raise rates. And I want them to separate the charges for electric power from the charges for broadband.”