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Columbia River PUD manager leaves district

Board appoints interim manager after negotiating severance package with Owens

Photo Credit: SPOTLIGHT FILE PHOTO - Kevin Owens

After receiving an offer of compromise last month, Columbia River People’s Utility District directors voted Tuesday, Dec. 16, to execute a separation agreement with General Manager Kevin Owens.

Owens, who was absent at the meeting, will remain on administrative leave until his official departure on Jan. 2.

Steve Hursh, the district’s engineering and operations manager, will act as interim manager until a new general manager is hired.

The vote came after months of scrutiny over Owens’ more than $200,000 annual compensation and his behavior as manager. Owens was hired as general manager in January 2004.

He was implicated in at least one Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industries claim against the district, after an information technology employee found a customer’s email that was sent to Owens in 2013, which Owens then sent to his own son. In a back-and-forth email exchange, Owens and his son disparaged the customer for sharing his hardships as a disabled veteran and requesting the district to consider his inability to pay his power bill.

Reports also surfaced of Owens and other managers at the district allegedly harassing and bullying employees. Former employees said they retired early to avoid the work environment at the PUD. Others said they believed they were fired out of retaliation for whistleblowing or challenging established district procedures.

BOLI is currently investigating at least two claims against the district.

As part of a negotiated severance package, Owens will receive six months' salary, half his annual bonus, a payout of all unused paid leave and the cash equivalent of six months’ worth of health insurance premiums for Owens and his spouse, as well as the cash equivalent of retiree medical benefits that he would otherwise not be eligible to receive.

In all, the package amounts to about $131,000, according to the separation agreement. The agreement also bars Owens and CRPUD from saying anything malicious or disparaging about one another.

After voting to approve the agreement following an executive session, directors didn’t elaborate on their decision when pressed for an explanation by the public.

Dave Baker, vice president of the board, said Wednesday that the board felt negotiating Owens’ departure was the best outcome for the district.

“Counsel advised us that this was a prudent thing to do, considering the existing litigation and possible payouts,” Baker said by phone Wednesday. He said after reviewing Owens’ offer of compromise, Kirk Gibson, outgoing legal counsel for CRPUD, advised the board that Owens could have enough grounds for claims against the district.

“It was a compromise agreement and the board approved it,” Gibson told an inquisitive audience during Tuesday’s meeting. “After weighing all the factors, many of which you couldn’t be aware of, they felt this was the right decision.”

Gibson said last month that in his offer to the board, Owens waived his rights to file any claims against the district.

Hursh read a statement from Owens during an all-employee meeting Wednesday morning, according to a CRPUD news release.

“I have enjoyed an incredible 11 years at Columbia River PUD and had the privilege of working with an incredibly talented group of management staff and employees that truly understand the value and importance of working for a consumer-owned utility, and the delicate balance required to meet the needs of all customers, the community and the employees,” Hursh read on behalf of Owens.

“The board is always looking out for the least possible damage for our customers and to be the most cost-efficient for our customers,” Baker said. “It’s time to heal. We can do better and we will.”

The separation agreement was approved with three votes. Director Jake Carter abstained from voting and Director Loren Tarbell was absent. Carter chose not to vote Tuesday after he skipped a lengthy executive session Nov. 25, during which directors talked about various legal issues.

“Steve Hursh has agreed to step into the position for as long as the board requires him to do it or until he resigns,” Board President Carol Everman said Tuesday. “In either case, he’s allowed to return to his current position as operations manager.”

In addition to finding a temporary replacement for the district’s general manager, the board also voted to hire Akin Blitz of Bullard Law, to serve as the district’s interim attorney until permanent legal counsel is hired. On Nov. 25, both of the district’s attorneys announced they were resigning from serving the district at the end of December.

The board will meet again for a special meeting at 6 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 6.

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