Sure, OPALCO cares, but about what? | Guest column

Dr. Richard Fadem.

Dr. Richard Fadem.

Editor’s note: To see MacLeod’s letters, go to and scroll to the bottom.

by Richard Fadem

Alex MacLeod of Shaw Island has had three letters  published by island news outlets over the past couple of months. They detail the OPALCO Board’s chicanery and apparent dishonesty.

Every OPALCO member should read them in sequence. (A link to the letters online is above).

They first astonish, then prompt indignation and finally disgust. The third (“On Board? Honesty not the preferred policy at OPALCO,”) seems to prove what he had conjectured in the first two.

They expose an apparent betrayal of trust and a pattern of deceit, moral and financial, that should compel OPALCO’s members, we owners, to demand the resignations of Chris Thomerson, the Board chair during much of the period, and Randy Cornelius, the general manager, as well as any other Board members found to be complicit.

Thomerson and Cornelius seemed to have lied to members in public meetings about OPALCO’s lawyers’ intimidation of a resigning board member and a member of the County Council. Thomerson and Cornelius did so apparently to conceal a greater lie, one to all of us: that of their going ahead with a financially risky broadband project under the cover of “electric-system infrastructure.”

Thomerson or Cornelius even went so far, it appears, as to lie to a new board member about the contents of bills from the law firm and why MacLeod’s request to see the bills should be denied.

The bills, MacLeod later learned from a board member who reviewed them at his request, corroborates his earlier conjecture that OPALCO’s lawyers had not acted independently, as Thomerson, Cornelius and other board members claimed, but on orders from Thomerson as chair, and perhaps also Cornelius.

MacLeod’s letters are meticulously researched and responsible (he is the retired managing editor of The Seattle Times, and, for full disclosure, I know him). His motivation is disinterested and that of any good newspaperman: to serve the public interest by exposing those who betray the public trust.

“OPALCO CARES” is the new motto, but cares about what? Mostly, it seems, about concealment.

Thomerson and the board evidently violated OPALCO’s bylaws by doing much of their business in executive and “working sessions,” both of which are secret, neither of which the bylaws provide for. As for its regular meetings, the board has so streamlined its minutes that they cease to inform. Sadly, OPALCO is most transparent now only in the board’s determination to shroud what it is doing.

Led by Thomerson, the board undertook a multi-million dollar broadband project. An insufficient number of the membership endorsed the project, most deciding not to pay an additional $15/month, much less commit to a $90-a-month broadband-connection charge. Undeterred, the board, it appears, has persevered in its project, now camouflaging it under expenditures for the maintenance and improvement of its core electrical service.

The board’s conduct is fiscally questionable, ethically wrong and may violate the directors’ fiduciary responsibilities. The board has denied us information regarding OPALCO’s directions, undertakings, and financial risks, for which we, the owner-members, are liable.

Many of us moved to San Juan County so as to live in a small community whose dealings were transparent, responsive to the residents and largely just. Now we learn that OPALCO, whose only job is to ensure reliable electricity at a fair cost, exhibits an arrogance, clandestine manipulation, and deceit we expect to find at an Enron, a Countrywide, the too-big-to-fail banks and General Motors.

What amazes one about OPALCO is how the clumsy, ham-fisted behavior appears disproportionate to the stakes. Are we missing something?

But the behavior is not yet endemic, and while we can still assign personal culpability, we can call for Thomerson’s resignation and the resignations of those on the board and in management who acted on the principle that their ends justify their shameless means.

Professor emeritus of Scripps College, Richard Fadem earned a doctorate of English and Comparative Literature from Columbia University and is “CEO” of literature classes on Orcas, Shaw and San Juan.