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PUD board charting a dangerous course toward litigation

Over the past decade there have been few reasons to question the Columbia River PUD’s operational stability. Rates have been low, there was little to no noise emanating from the utility’s personnel, and for the most part ratepayers served by the utility district seemed genuinely pleased with their service.

Even on those occasions when a small rate hike seemed inevitable, district board members were able to dip into the utility’s rate stabilization fund and leverage reserve dollars to hold rates steady. And, indeed, the value has been huge: Columbia River PUD has some of the best power rates in the state, or in the nation for that matter. It’s hard to argue with results.

But, after a series of PUD management and board controversies, the utility’s sterling shine has dimmed. Rumblings of internal problems started two years ago when complaints filed by John Nguyen, the PUD’s IT manager, with the state Bureau of Labor and Industries alleged a hostile work environment being perpetuated by former general manager Kevin Owens. Further BOLI complaints, including one by ousted employee Rick Lugar, also sought to implicate Owens’ contribution to a hostile work environment.

Following the hiring of an independent investigator in October 2014, and a November 2014 general election that saw the dismissal of two PUD board members — who were replaced by challengers Craig Melton and Harry Price — Owens in December 2014 agreed to a separation agreement with the PUD. Later, we discovered a BOLI investigator, Nicole Babnick, in an initial review of a claim brought by Nguyen found “substantial evidence” supporting his claims that Owens had retaliated against him for being a whistleblower. Conversely, however, we are aware of at least two concluded investigations that found no wrongdoing on Owens’ part regarding other employee claims, or on the part of the district’s human resources manager, Valarie Koss, who was also targeted in BOLI complaints. We are also aware of other investigations, and intend to seek the results of those to hopefully clarify the past and present working environment at the PUD.

Regardless of the claims, following Owens’ departure the board had an opportunity to right the ship, to put the PUD back on track toward operational stability. It should have pursued the hiring of a full-time, professional general manager, made a responsible choice in that regard, and then taken a step back so that its role consisted of setting policy for the district. After all, that is the main function of the board: to set policy. It is not to oversee day-to-day operations or staff, which exposes the board to potential litigation. Especially, as PUD sources have indicated, some of the PUD board members have a grudge to settle with PUD employees. By establishing good policy, an incoming general manager is given a sense of his or her expectations regarding operations and staff management. Then, should the general manager abuse or dismiss such policies, the board has the recourse of outlining corrective actions and, if necessary, initiating disciplinary measures.

So far, however, the new PUD board members, with the addition of vice president Jake Carter, have failed to demonstrate even a rudimentary knowledge of their role, and have not even taken the first step toward permanently filling the job vacated by Owens nearly one year ago. Instead, the board - most notably a subset consisting of Carter, Melton and Price, who routinely vote as a block and set the agenda, which raises questions about the setting of secret agendas — has bulldozed through three interim general managers and even more attorneys since Owens’ departure. They did so again last week with the dismissal of former interim general manager Lugar, who just the week prior had been given assurance by the board for a two-month term as interim general manager.

The illogical zigzags and opaque maneuverings of the Carter, Melton and Price cabal prompted board President Dave Baker to point out, “We’re a $30 million public agency and we’re being run by a very small minority with a personal vendetta.”

The actions of Carter, Melton and Price further indicate to us that they are enjoying holding managerial sway over the PUD’s employees and, likewise, prefer to keep the job of general manager in limbo so that they can direct the PUD without interference. Unfortunately, by their actions, it is clear they are woefully unqualified as managers. Last week, a 31-year PUD employee actually approached a Spotlight reporter in tears and said she believes the PUD board members do not have the best interest of the PUD in mind. We agree. The employee referenced the possibility of a recall effort against the offending PUD board members.

Instead of instilling a sense of confidence in the board, which was an opportunity available to Carter, Melton and Price, they have instead thrown gasoline on the fire. By tearing through interim general managers, they have broadcast an off-with-their heads message of destabilization that has only punctuated their failure as board members. Perhaps it is time for them to go.

Still, the authority is theirs to attempt to make amends by acting like responsible board members, initiating a search for a permanent, qualified general manager, and then taking the steps to be true leaders. We have our doubts, however, as that would take a mature approach. Instead, we believe the PUD is on a path toward further litigation and expense to the district, and hence further expense to the ratepayers.