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New directors ready to tackle PUD challenges

Melton, Price want more transparency and a better public image for utility

Columbia River People's Utility District is poised for major changes in 2015.

At the start of the year, the utility will see two new board members take office as it searches for a new general manager and new legal counsel.

Harry Price and Craig Melton both won seats on the board of directors in the Nov. 4 general election. The board members-elect ousted longtime directors Carol Everman and Loren Tarbell, who each served on the board for 19 years.

Once sworn into office, Melton will represent Subdivision 2 in McNulty, Chapman, Warren and portions of Scappoose. Price will serve Subdivision 5 in Columbia City, Goble, Prescott, Rainier, Apiary and portions of Deer Island.

The new directors could face a challenging year. On Dec. 16, the board voted to approve a separation agreement with the district's general manager, Kevin Owens. Owens will not return to work and will be paid half his salary, bonus and benefits. Steve Hursh, the PUD's engineering and operations manager, was named interim manager until a permanent manager is hired.

In addition to the change in leadership, both of the district's attorneys announced they will no longer serve the district as of Jan. 1. An interim attorney has been hired.

Prior to Owens' departure, he submitted an offer of compromise to the board, forfeiting his right to sue the district if the district agreed to give him a negotiated amount of money.

Kirk Gibson, the PUD's outgoing general legal counsel, said Owens' letter was an offer to forfeit rights to file claims, rather than going to court.

“It is simply an offer by a party (or parties) to compromise their rights and claims to settle all of those claims in one settlement process in lieu of litigation,” Gibson stated.

Price and Melton are scheduled to be sworn onto the board Jan. 6.

Harry Price.Price wants better image for PUD

Price will face his own challenges. Price acknowledged he may have to recuse himself from certain votes because his daughter works for the PUD.

He said he thinks the district is "moving forward in the right way," and said Owens' departure could be good for the district.

"The action taken by Kevin Owens was somewhat positive because he will no longer be a part of the PUD and it will make it easier to make decisions, in my opinion," Price said, noting his interactions with Owens were always positive.

Price, 76, said he only plans to serve one term, but he has a list of areas he plans to delve into.

He said he'd like to see the district take part in “positive image building” and an “open door policy” with management.

“First of all, I'm there for the ratepayer,” Price said. “I'm there to make sure we spend wisely ... I don't understand the budget, but I'll learn it quickly.”

Price said he'd like to see more detail in the district's budget as it's presented to the public and the budget advisory committee.

Asked how he'll handle some of the recent public scrutiny, Price said he “won't have an agenda coming in,” but he does have concerns about employee claims filed against the district, as well as an ongoing building remodel at the PUD office and the relationship between employees and managers.

“I have to get a lot of education in,” Price acknowledged. "I won't support management that creates lawsuits.”

The Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industries investigated three civil rights complaints against the PUD in 2014, each of which implicates Owens, according to the bureau. Two of the complaints are still under investigation. One is slated to be settled or dealt with in court, according to BOLI.

Craig Melton.Melton emphasizes transparency, communication

Melton, who served on the PUD's budget advisory committee for the last decade, said transparency is one of his biggest priorities.

“I ran my campaign on transparency and I'm gonna stick to it,” Melton said.

Like Price, Melton said he would like to see a better breakdown of how the district's money is being spent and more input from the budget advisory committee than what was provided this year.

Melton said this year, the budget committee had no spending plan to review during the first budget committee meeting. The second meeting was canceled and never rescheduled.

He said the committee, in its current form, is not truly an advisory committee.

"There's no process to make recommendations to the board,” Melton said. “They ask us for our input, but there's no meeting minutes. There's no motions or votes made.”

He said even after 10 years on the budget committee, he never knew what the district paid its general manager until reading reports in the Spotlight.

Melton reached out to the current directors via email in November. Both he and Price expressed gratitude and appreciation for the board and its outgoing members' years of service, but Melton left them with a few suggestions.

“I asked them to do a hiring freeze until the new board comes on,” he said, voicing concerns about increasing costs of power from the district's energy provider, Bonneville Power Administration. Melton said the district is running fine without all of its positions filled and recommended leaving those positions unfunded until next year, to save money that could be used to offset increasing power prices.

The district's approved 2015 budget contains no rate increases for customers, which will cost the district an estimated $302,000 to absorb the cost of a BPA increase, according to a PUD spokeswoman.

Addressing the district's work environment, Melton said he would like to facilitate more of an “open dialog” with current and former employees. Melton also said he would advocate for the district to reverse its policy of prohibiting outgoing employees from openly discussing their experience at the PUD.

“I would like to see a better work environment for all employees,” he said.

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