Make OPALCO Power Affordable Again.

A Curious Little Development at Opalco

By Alex Macleod

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

There is a move afoot to change OPALCO's By-Laws to restructure the board so its membership reflects the population of each island.

There is nothing especially novel about the idea: it has, at various times, been pushed for the county council, for instance.

What makes this more interesting is that it is being pushed by Gerry Lawlor, the head of OPALCO's subsidiary, Rock Island Communications. In a recent email to islanders, Lawlor encouraged them to sign and return an attached petition in support of the change. But he went beyond the issue of "proportional" representation, adding: 

"I .. believe this is important for the long term stability and management of critical infrastructure (electric and communications) to continue to provide the services we have today and the expansion of much needed infrastructure in the future."

This is a pretty interesting assessment from someone arguably in the No. 2 job at OPALCO, though he didn't identify himself as such in the email. It raises a number of questions, the central one being:

Why does he believe the current Board makeup — two representatives each from San Juan, Orcas and Lopez, and one from Shaw/Crane — can't be trusted with the future stability and management of OPALCO/Rock Island?

This is, after all, a Board which has done nothing but funnel money into Rock Island and into OPALCO's grid to support Rock Island's broadband business. Rock Island has burned through two years of start-up funding in its first year, yet failed to meet its modest service goals. Its staff is slated to continue growing substantially, again on OPALCO's dime, and the Board has shown absolutely no inclination to do anything but continue on the same path, come hell or high water.

Meanwhile, some members have complained about large and continuing annual increases in their electric bills, mostly to pay for OPALCO's broadband business, when many don't have the financial resources to pay their electric bills, much less high-speed broadband service. So, OPALCO has put a new charge on everyone's bills to provide more money to try to help those who now can't pay.

Still, the Board charges ahead with no signs of doubt or concern. It has come up with a way to stay afloat financially — they call it "true-up" — Alex MacLeod is a longtimeno matter what, simply by raising power bills as much and as often as needed to keep its lender happy.

So, what is Lawlor's concern? 

I wish I could tell you.

I've asked him twice and gotten no response. His boss, OPALCO general manager Foster Hildreth, won't say either. Instead, he says OPALCO's lawyers say Lawlor's role is quite legal (not a question I raised) and that he was acting as any other member would in expressing his opinion.

Board President Jim Lett said the same. "He's just another member with an opinion." But does it make you curious what one of your top executives means when he says making this change is important to the long term stability and management of the co-operative? "Yes, but I haven't asked him about it."

Credit Lett with the courtesy to call and discuss my questions. Hildreth, on the other hand, wrote that I have an "obsession to smear OPALCO," adding: "I have cautioned (Lawlor) that responding to your inquiries is not a prudent use of his time."

But, apparently, writing that he fears for the future of OPALCO unless the Board representation is changed is.
(Alex MacLeod is a longtime OPALCO member who lives on Shaw. The By-Law proposal would likely eliminate the Shaw/Crane Board position. He wonders if that's just a coincidence.)

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