What are OPALCO’s motives? | Guest Column

by Alex MacLeod

Special to the Sounder

If you were paying attention, you might recall that the last OPALCO election was fraught with controversy and mismanagement.

It began in January when Gerry Lawlor, the No. 2 guy at OPALCO’s subsidiary Rock Island Communications, posted notes encouraging members to sign petitions to change the make-up of the OPALCO board.

When asked, neither Foster Hildreth, Lawlor’s boss, nor Jim Lett, then OPALCO’s board president, expressed any concern about Lawlor’s involvement. Lawlor’s concern hardly made sense on the face of it, since the OPALCO board had done nothing but funnel huge sums of member money — upwards of $20 million — to support the Rock Island venture.

Be that as it may, Lawlor went even further later in the campaign, sending out an email on behalf of Rock Island encouraging its customers to support three candidates up for election.

Again, Hildreth brushed it off until it became clear enough members — including the other board candidates — were really angry at management’s brazen attempt to put its thumb on the scale of the election. Hildreth belatedly apologized for the action, but he and the board resisted calls to have the election postponed. The three candidates Rock Island boosted were elected.

To top it all off, OPALCO’s election overseer announced at the annual meeting that the by-law change Lawlor had pushed had been approved, when in fact it had been soundly rejected. It took OPALCO two days to correct the record.

Along the way, the nominating committee for the Lopez district disqualified an interested candidate because he is a part-time resident. Never mind that the board had earlier appointed a part-time Shaw resident to fill a board vacancy.

In the wake of all this, the board belatedly cleaned up the eligibility language in the by-laws (now you just need to be a co-op member) and made policy changes prohibiting OPALCO and Rock Island employees from engaging in the cooperative’s election process beyond voting. Then, in June, Hildreth called for the creation of a member committee to review remaining election processes. He identified five: “nominating committee; election details and candidate outreach; balloting materials; candidate forums protocol, and voting process.”

The committee — four members from Orcas and one each from Lopez, San Juan and Shaw — rewrote its charge and moved to restructure the co-op’s districts and the make-up of the board, a move the membership had just rejected.

The committee now proposes eliminating the Shaw/Crane district and reducing Lopez’ representation to one board member from two. Rather than being elected countywide as now, candidates would be elected solely by members in their respective districts. The final two members would be from any district and elected by all members.

How this addresses the problems that arose in the last election is a mystery. What is not is Hildreth’s and the board’s apparent eagerness to make these changes.

Even before the committee’s recommendations went to the board, Hildreth scheduled a series of “open house” meetings on each island. And even before those meetings are held, the board has called a special meeting on Thursday, Sept. 29 at 8:30 a.m. in the Eastsound office to move the committee’s recommendations forward. Unlike the member-proposed change roundly rejected last April, these changes could occur by a simple vote of the board, just as it changed the mission of the cooperative three years ago to that of a telecommunications company, along with its historic role as an electric cooperative.

Change of this significance should not occur without a vote of the membership. The question is whether this board can be trusted to recognize that. The record would indicate the answer to that is a resounding “no.”