The clouds that stormed the region last week portended a dark time for PEC members. The co-op’s general manager, John Hewa, resigned, citing pressure and harassment from board members. Hewa has been widely acclaimed for the fresh air he injected into PEC management. Smart, forward-looking, hard-working and with an unimpeachable air of integrity, Hewa has helped modernize our electric cooperative – one of the nation’s largest, stretching over more than 20 counties – while restoring trust between members, employees, and management. That trust was sorely lacking during the bad old days of scandals that rocked the co-op under the corrupt leadership of Bennie Fuelberg, a dictatorial general manager convicted of what amounts to fraud, insider-dealing and self-enrichment during his long reign. Fuelberg kept secrets from members and board members alike. Hewa, like Juan Garza before him, helped rebuild the co-op’s reputation, with support from a reform-minded but fractious board.
Now, a new board majority seems to be backsliding. Garza was given the boot by a previous board for poor reasons. To see his replacement, John Hewa, now resign rather than knuckle under to what he clearly considers unethical behavior is startling to those acquainted with the co-op’s past. The background is this. Last fall, the board’s president, James Oakley, published comments [on his website]that said, “Time to find a tree and get a rope,”in response to the arrest of a black suspect in the shooting of a policeman in San Antonio. No serious person is anything but outraged by the shooting of a police officer but Oakley’s rush to judgment of a suspect accused but not yet convicted was further compounded by the use of language that called to mind – for many – an era when black suspects were lynched in Texas, without due process and sometimes without evidence. Worse, Oakley was at the time, and still is, a sitting county judge, with both policy and judicial responsibilities in Burnet County. The state board of judicial conduct reprimanded Oakley but he remained as county judge. At the co-op, a group of employees expressed concerns about having him as the face of the organization. Under pressure from various fronts, he resigned as chairman but remained on the board (PEC board members are elected, paid a salary with benefits, and expected to exercise oversight and set policy for the co-op). GM Hewa seemed to handle the affair gamely enough, standing up for his employees without over-sensationalizing the affair. He helped exact promises from the board that there would be no retribution against staff who had come forward to voice concerns – an important concept, since in the Fuelberg era staff faced certain punishment if they raised ethical questions or dared even modest disagreement with direction.
Oakley was replaced by allies on the board, who also happen to generally belong to a faction that has been pushed by fossil fuel groups questioning the co-op’s turn toward more wind and solar energy, and by the Republican Party, with unprecedented funding and partisanship in recent co-op elections. Hewa says some board members did indeed seek to exact revenge on employees, and also turned against him for defending employees from intimidation, making his position untenable. It’s quite a statement for someone until now seen as a bridge-building diplomat. As with most of “real life,” this story isn’t simple. Oakley is a fairly partisan conservative Republican – his Facebook page features a photograph of him standing in a group with Donald Trump and he’s been ferocious at times in Burnett County. But – though he’s been criticized for holding two paid public positions (board member and county judge) – he’s been a constructive board member on many issues, generally at least somewhat open to new technologies, more open accounting of co-op funds, and to the use of alternative energy. His remarks about trees and lynching were insensitive at best, and worthy of reprimand, but do not define him – or would not, if he had simply apologized and moved on. Oakley’s replacement as chair of the board is one of his allies and a fellow GOP activist, Emily Pataki, the daughter-in-law of George Pataki, the former Republican governor of New York and a Republican presidential candidate. Pataki is clearly bright and (at least until now) she has not worn her partisanship on her sleeve at PEC; like Oakley, she has championed single member districts (a concept that has evoked over-stoked outrage among some reformers but that, on the whole, is probably a good thing for PEC). But in the end, the five Republican members of the board seem lined up behind Oakley 5-2, against two of the original reformers, both of whom happen to be Democrats, to the determinant of good management and openness. Employees are once again being told they can’t speak up honestly, or so it seems from the outside. (The board members representing the Buda-Kyle area, Amy Akers, and the Dripping Springs area, Jim Powers, are part of this majority.) While it would be an oversimplification to say this is R vs. D, it’s disappointing to see what resembles blind partisanship blossoming at the co-op, and even more disappointing to see an otherwise successful GM leave because board members can’t accept criticism of their mistakes, or even the mistake of a colleague.
There’s a lot of good to be said about what has gone on at PEC over the past several years, including some things championed by members of the “new majority” that replaced the original reformers. This latest episode will overshadow that for now and, depending on how the board responds from this point forward, perhaps for years to come. The Hays Free Press helped ferret out bullying and corruption at PEC a decade ago, with stories and editorials that contributed to changes in the management, bylaws, and governing statutes of PEC and triggered a legislative investigation. Since then, like many in the co-op, we’ve been less focused.