TBPC approves resolution supporting SEAPA takeover
Thomas Bay Power commissioners voted 5-0 to support the handover of Tyee Lake to the Southeast Alaska Power Agency (SEAPA).
The special meeting, held June 5, was the commission’s first in at least two months and drew Petersburg commissioners as well as the Petersburg mayor to the borough assembly chambers.
Critics of the transfer have said the handover would essentially put borough resources in the hands of an unelected bureaucracy. Supporters generally say the transfer will limit the liability Wrangell faces in connection with Tyee Lake operations, and it will also improve efficiencies and reduce costs and, consequently, electric bills.
The adopted resolution makes reference to resolutions passed by the assemblies of either borough and unequivocally voices support for the transfer of operations and maintenance to SEAPA.
“The TBP Commission herby (sic) recognizes and supports the desire of the boroughs of Petersburg and Wrangell to transition operations and maintenance of Tyee from TBPA and TBP Commission to its owner, SEAPA,” the resolution reads in part.
An additional clause of the resolution directs TBPA staff “to provide details and information pertinent and necessary for such transition to the designated point of contact, Wrangell Borough Manager, and to not willfully or intentionally impede such progress.”
The last portion of the resolution appears aimed directly at what commissioners variously described as a lack of cooperation or obstruction on the part of TBPA General Manager Mick Nichols and administrative secretary Rhonda Christian. Nichols declined the opportunity for comment, as did commission President James Stough and commission secretary Dave Galla, neither of whom attended Thursday’s meeting. Emails to Christian went unreturned.
Attempts to establish a meeting since early May had been met with acknowledgment, only to be ignored later, commissioners said. Written materials, like the text of the resolution, have in some cases not been circulated to commissioners in a timely fashion, commissioners said. E-mail correspondence among various commissioners forwarded to the Sentinel show Christian attempting to establish a meeting for May 9. When various commissioners responded that they preferred May 6, Christian accused them of breaking Alaska state law.
“I have been instructed to share with you, that again you are in direct violation of the open meeting act by establishing a quorum (via e-mail),” Christian wrote to Hammer.
Christian’s absence at the June 5 meeting forced commissioners to improvise. Wrangell borough clerk Kim Lane acted as a stand-in, taking minutes and responding to procedural questions.
“It appears many of us are reading this resolution for the first time,” said commission vice-president Robert Larson, before asking resolution author commissioner Clay Hammer to read the resolution in its entirety.
“By rights, you should have received a copy of this already because it was given to staff to redistribute as part of this packet,” Hammer said before reading the resolution.
Two identical resolutions passed in 2013 – first by the Wrangell Borough Assembly, then by the Petersburg borough assembly – lay out the basis for ongoing negotiations among Wrangell borough manager Jeff Jabusch, Petersburg borough manager Stephen Giesbrecht and SEAPA CEO Trey Acteson. Officials offered no updates on those ongoing discussions June 5.
The assemblies’ resolutions created a basis for ongoing cooperation, said commissioner Joe Nelson.
“We are a public entity and we are a creation of the two assemblies, and as far as I’m concerned there is nothing in our files that we would not turn over to either of the assemblies or the borough managers at their request,” he said. “I fail to see any issue there. We are essentially one entity, so in my mind there’s absolutely no reason not to turn these over.”
“I echo that same sentiment,” he said. “I frankly don’t understand why that would be an issue.”
Those statements clash with public statements made in the past by commission President James Stough, who has said borough statutes exclusively empower the commission to address the issue and who issued a cease-and-desist order to the SEAPA board of directors chairman in April.
A desire to clarify the commission’s position on negotiations led to the resolution, Hammer said.
“I kind of feel like our borough assemblies have come a long way to come together on this as a sense of direction as to how we’re moving management of the project forward,” he said. “The communities took great strides to get to where we are right now, and, in some ways, I’m kind of disappointed that we’ve had to come to passing this resolution in an effort to get staff to cooperate with our respective boroughs and assemblies. I would have thought that, being we’re an agency of our respective boroughs this is something that would just happen. I guess that just isn’t working, and so I’m hoping in passing this resolution, this’ll provide us with the tools by which we’ll all move forward and follow the will of our assemblies and communities. I look forward with moving along here.”
Jabusch had recently requested information on the TBPA insurance policy, which hadn’t been provided, Hammer said. A letter Hammer wrote in support of Jabusch’s request was never distributed to other commissioners, according to Hammer. In addition, packets for the June 5 meeting weren’t distributed to commissioners, Hammer said.
“Staff never even showed up,” he said. “Especially (Nichols) as the general manger, he most certainly should have been in attendance at this meeting, and he was not here. If we might have been offered a reason or been excused, it would have been okay, but we’ve never heard anything from them.”
“It’s just been a real serious issue, and we can’t continue to do business this way,” Hammer added. “We need to be professional about how we handle the city’s business, and that isn’t the way to do it.”
Hammer hopes the resolution will provide TBPA staff with guidance.
“I’m hoping after this resolution, they will have a very clear sense of direction as to where we as a commission are going with this, and they’ll have a clear directive on how to respond to future requests for information,” he added.
The borough assemblies’ wishes took precedence over personal reservations, said commissioner and SEAPA member Brian Ashton.
“My position is just clear that the city councils are the elected leaders and they give us direction ultimately on how we should be going,” he said. “They appoint the board.”
Ashton expressed some trepidation but pledged to follow the will of the assembly.
“I have reservations about (SEAPA’s) ability to do this and do it well,” he said. “The last two (SEAPA) meetings we were at, we were given presentations telling us that we were underpaying our executive director by $100,000, yet they’re gonna operate Tyee more cost effectively? But the council’s also told me that the appointed members of SEAPA need to make sure we are managing SEAPA in a way that we are SEAPA, so I’m going to continue to do my darndest to see that SEAPA is managed appropriately, and make sure that we’re being as fiscally responsible as we can. So, I support the councils as whole-heartedly as I can and to make sure the outcome is good.”
Stough’s and Galla’s absences created a procedural dilemma, Larson said. Commission correspondence is typically signed by both the president and the secretary, neither of whom were present.
“I can sign for the president as the vice-president,” he said. “It could be that it would be appropriate for all the commission members to sign it (in place of Galla). That would be my suggestion.”
The TBPA staff’s absence from the meeting may warrant professional action, several commissioners said. They decided to add an executive session on staff performance to the next meeting’s agenda. That meeting is tentatively set for June 12 in Petersburg.
“I was just wondering if there’s some kind of a remedial action we can take for this disobedience from the manager and the secretary,” said commissioner John Jensen. “It seems pretty rude to do what they have done, saying they were going to be at this meeting and then not showing up. We’ve been trying for the last couple months to put together a meeting to resolve this issue, and it just keeps getting put off and put off and put off. I’m just asking a question … is this something that’s grounds for termination?”
Jenson supports both the resolution and the handover.
“It’s been in the works for a long time,” he said. “Having two entities running the same piece of business seems like it’s too much duplicity to me, so I’m all for simplifying it. In the long run, hopefully it will keep our rates down a little bit longer.”
Nichols and Christian’s absence came as a shock, Larson said.
“I’ve spoken to our administrative staff and our general manager and our president earlier this week, and I’m frankly surprised that they weren’t here,” he said. “I had every expectation that they would be here. I will contact them and I’ll share their response with the rest of the commission.”
Future commission response would depend on whether staff cooperation was forthcoming, Larson continued, in answer to a question by assembly member Julie Decker about possible professional measures to be taken.
“I think regarding anything else that might come up, that we cross that bridge when we come to it,” he said. “I think the commission has clearly articulated our intent to share what information we have with the borough.”