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By itself, botched general manager hiring at PUD justifies recall

Correction: This editorial has been revised from its original version to correct an error. The correction appears at the bottom.

Should Craig Melton, director for Columbia River People’s Utility District, Subdivision 2, be recalled as is proposed by an initiative scheduled for the Feb. 23 ballot?

Ballots were mailed to voters in Subdivision 2 on Wednesday, Feb. 3.

Columbia River PUD Director Craig Melton There is no quick and easy argument to make for the recall of Melton, but that doesn’t mean one shouldn’t be made. In fact, we would be surprised if a recall effort did not result from the many knee-jerk, reckless and poorly considered actions stemming from the PUD board over the past year, actions often occurring with Melton’s involvement.

As has been stated in prior editorials and in letters published in this news publication on various occasions, the primary purpose of the PUD board of directors is to set policy for the agency, approve a budget and to hire and oversee the performance of the utility’s general manager.

By itself, Melton’s collusion in the board’s failed approach to hiring a general manager, and its seemingly unwillingness to step aside and allow that person to perform, provides a legitimate reason to recall him. Likewise, there are others on the board who warrant greater scrutiny, a list that includes director Dave Baker, whose participation in the recall effort threatens the integrity of it and further compromises board relationships.

As of this writing, the PUD board has yet to initiate the hiring of a full-time, permanent general manager. We can only speculate about the reasons why. When asked, Melton said there was consensus to first get the PUD back in order, for the “storm to be mellowed out,” because who in their right mind would want to take over managerial control of a utility that is so messed up?

In an interview last week, Melton said interim general manager Steve Hursh, who had been appointed by a prior board, quickly became overwhelmed in his new role, which is not surprising considering he retained his engineering managerial duties and was assigned to also take on the general manager tasks.

In an unexpected move, Melton, Carter and Price decide to yank Hursh out of his interim general manager position after three months. Some will argue Hursh wanted to resign, and in fact we believe that is true, though not for the reasons people such as the so-called Friends of the CRPUD, who are bent on defending Melton, like to spin it.

From sources we’ve talked to, Hursh was instead looking for support from the board, and absent that support, was keen to resign. Board President Dave Baker encouraged him not to in the interest of stability, but by then, with a three-member majority running the board, the point was moot.

By his own admission, Hursh did not anticipate his removal from the interim general manager position.

The ensuing decision to tap Rick Lugar, who had only recently been rehired following his termination in December 2013, to follow Hursh in the interim general manager role is also somewhat of a mystery.

Lugar had recently been rehired following his filing of a Bureau of Labor and Industries claim against former general manager, Kevin Owens. According to Melton, Lugar’s rehire, much like the rehire of current interim general manager John Nguyen, was a condition of a settlement agreement.

After serving in the interim role for six months, Lugar was ultimately admonished and removed from his position as interim general manager less than two weeks after the board, again led by the Melton, Carter and Price voting majority, gave its assurances of a six-month agreement to Lugar.

According to Melton, one of the reasons Lugar was relieved from the role of interim general manager is because he had told PUD employees that he would likely have approved controversial retention agreements with the utility’s managerial staff, as Owens did. The board has been openly opposed to those agreements and they are now a source of pending litigation.

Did Lugar craft and sign those agreements? No. Did he have anything to do with the prior retention agreements? No. Indeed, it’s our understanding, according to Melton, that Lugar had brought the agreements to the attention of the board in the first place.

Based on Lugar’s comments to staff, Melton later said, “We were scared. As a board member, was there going to be more retention agreements?” In other words, after nine months had passed with Melton on the board, he was wondering whether he had appointed a loose cannon to the position of interim general manager. That could have been avoided if the board, and Melton, had acted responsibly in the first place.

For voicing his opinion in a way that conflicted with the board, Lugar was out.

Current interim general manager, John Nguyen, received the next Carter-Melton-Price nod to serve. So far, vocal current PUD employees, and many retired PUD employees, have said Nguyen is doing a good job and the work environment at the PUD has sharply improved.

We wonder, however, at Melton, Carter and Price’s logic to place Nguyen, the former IT manager who had been fired by Owens after blowing the whistle on issues at the PUD in 2014, in a supervisory position over people whom Nguyen had recently filed lawsuits against.

Nguyen had filed a lawsuit in Multnomah County Circuit Court in March 2015 naming Owens and former PUD human resources manager, Valarie Koss, as defendants.

Regardless of Nguyen’s merits as a manager, it seems pure folly to place him in a supervisory role over people such as Koss, who he had sued as recently as five months earlier. Is this good decision-making by Melton and the board? No.

Not surprisingly, less than a month later, Nguyen fired Koss, Hursh, accounts and finance manager Sheila Duehring, and IT manager Serena Brooks, the latter having been hired to fill Nguyen’s position after he had earlier been fired by Owens.

Lugar has since retired. He’s out, too.

Nguyen has claimed he acted unilaterally against those who held the retention agreements, but we have to wonder.

There is much more that could be written regarding the follies of the current board under the Melton, Carter, Price majority, material sufficient to fill multiple editorial pages in this newspaper. Some of those issues include admissions by Melton that he and another director acted independently of the board to seek out and give assurances to new attorneys, assurances, of course, that were ultimately approved; a current environment at the PUD in which employees are inclined to bypass the chain of command and air grievances directly to the board, something Melton acknowledged; a new governance policy that flies in the face of Oregon whistleblower laws and, possibly, the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution; the influence of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers union on the board; current employees who disagree with the new environment, but are concerned to openly say so; the list goes on.

When Owens negotiated a settlement agreement and left the PUD, we believed it was time for him to go. When Price beat Carol Everman, and Melton won a position over Loren Tarbell in the November 2014 election, we believed the PUD board had a golden opportunity to get back on track — search for a new general manager, open the job up and encourage qualified PUD staff members, both current and former, to apply.

But that didn’t happen — and still hasn’t happened, more than a year later.

Now, we believe PUD ratepayers have a chance to make their voices heard. Do you like the stories coming out of the PUD? If you do, keep Melton.

If not, it’s time to make a change. You’ll get your chance on Feb. 23.

An earlier version of this editorial indicated Steve Hursh had been appointed to the role of interim general manager by a vote of board members Craig Melton, Jake Carter and Harry Price. In fact, Hursh was appointed Dec. 16, before Melton and Price had been sworn into office. The Spotlight regrets the error.