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PUD board weathers political storm

District unveils $550K storm expenses; grapples with board governance policy

Columbia River People’s Utility District recently sustained an unprecedented storm causing damage to its equipment, costing the district an estimated $550,000, but ratepayers and employees remain fixated on the utility district’s ongoing political fallout.

The county is awaiting word from the Federal Emergency Management Agency about whether it will reimburse government agencies within the county for costs incurred during a series of storms last December.

If FEMA does provide funding, the PUD could see about $412,000 of its costs reimbursed. If not, it will take a large hit on the agency’s teetering cash reserves.

COURTNEY VAUGHN - Columbia River PUD Director Dave Baker (left) and President Jake Carter address ongoing division within the board during a public meeting Jan. 21. Recent unrest over a recall election and ongoing legal issues infused discussions during the meeting.Directors tried to conduct regular business Thursday, Jan. 21, approving 2.35 percent cost of living adjustments for all non-union employees and higher salary ranges for several positions at the PUD, but lingering tension over an upcoming recall election surfaced during a lengthy public comment session at the end of the meeting.

“I was really surprised to know that two of the board members here were part of the petitioning,” Director Craig Melton said, referring to fellow directors Dave Baker and Richard Simpson, who aided in collecting signatures for a petition to recall Melton from the PUD board.

“I don’t think that’s the way to help move forward together as a board, is to go out and collect petitions against your fellow board members,” said Director Jake Carter, who was appointed board president earlier that evening.

After Melton and Director Harry Price were elected to the board in November 2014, the district’s leadership underwent several dramatic changes. The district’s general manger resigned, followed by its legal team two weeks later.

Finding replacements for the attorneys and manager yielded hotly contested board votes at a time when several employees lamented the work atmosphere at the district. The PUD has been embattled with former employees off and on since 2013 and still faces two outlying legal complaints over alleged contract breaches and wrongful termination.

Those issues were ever-present during the decision-making process and often overshadowed the agenda items.

Directors were divided over a board governance policy that included guiding principles for “good and effective stewardship of the PUD.”

Director Richard Simpson shares his concerns about a new board governance policy during a Columbia river PUD Board of Directors meeting Thursday, Jan. 21.Simpson said the 21-page policy needed revision before approval, naming sections that he felt were inconsistent, overreaching or conflicting with existing policy.

“The PUD’s mission statement should be a collaborative effort when it is developed,” Simpson suggested, saying the board should get input from the employees and public when crafting its mission.

The policy includes guidelines for board member duties, authority and training, along with a code of conduct and guidelines for communication during and outside public meetings.

Simpson and Baker advocated spending more time on the policy, to allow the board to review it section by section, but they were outnumbered by Carter, Melton and Director Harry Price, who voted by teleconference from his home.

Directors were taken to task toward the end of the meeting. Carter resorted to using his gavel several times to quell a heated, back-and-forth dialog between ratepayers, board members and PUD employees who filled every seat in the audience.

Recall issues surfaced, with employees fiercely defending Melton, Carter and Price, who have been criticized by recall proponents.

Mark Larson, a former PUD union employee, commended Melton and Carter for their help during the December wind storm.

“Jake [Carter] and Craig [Melton] ... while you guys were out delivering hot meals and volunteering, your board president was out gathering petition signatures,” Larson said.

Former PUD manager beefs up legal complaint

A legal complaint filed in 2015 by the PUD’s former general manager, Kevin Owens, was amended this week to include a claim of disparagement via an anti-recall website. In his revised complaint, Owens alleges Jake Carter made disparaging statements about Owens’ performance as general manager during a public meeting last year, when he publicly acknowledged the existence of confidential employee retention agreements. The complaint was amended to include a claim that the website created by anti-recall group Friends of the Columbia River PUD also contains statements that could portray Owens in a negative light to prospective employers. Owens alleges the site was created directly or indirectly by PUD managers. Owens is seeking $75,000. The PUD has filed a countersuit to the claims.