KIUC board silent on member questions

LIHU’E — Kaua’i Island Utility Coop (KIUC) board members came under the gun Wednesday at their regularly-scheduled board meeting.

About 17 concerned co-op members attended, intent on getting answers to their questions concerning board spending, rates, and KIUC board and leadership accountability to membership.

What they got was silence, until two of them were called “crooks.”

Suzanne Pearson singled out board Chairman Gregg Gardiner and Director Ron Kouchi. She told Gardiner, “You were a crook then, and you are a crook now.”

Gardiner sat impassively.

As for Kouchi, Pearson said, “You were a crook on the County Council and (you are) a crook on this one.”

Kouchi shot back that he refuses to be spoken to that way.

It was the only thing any director said during the public-testimony part of the meeting, where co-op members made suggestions that board members be more financially accountable, that they not waste money, that they should issue monthly financial statements to members, that they resign en masse, and that they should amend their bylaws to comply with Open Records Law HRA-92F (the sunshine law).

“Something is wrong here. We need a monthly financial report. We expect you to be honest with us,” said Valentine Ako.

Kaua’i consumers pay the highest electricity rates in the state, and among the highest co-op rates in the nation, according to information provided by KIUC officials.

Barbara Elmore, who picketed the KIUC building earlier in the day amid the watchful eyes of several security officers, asked the board members to resign immediately, and return the (nine) vehicles that KIUC allegedly purchased for certain high-ranking employees for more than $239,000 (or over $26,500 per vehicle).

She asked whose name is on the deed of the $777,617 home KIUC leaders purchased for the president and chief executive officer, currently occupied by President and Chief Executive Officer Harry A. “Dutch” Achenbach. She also pointed out that Achenbach allegedly drives a huge, gas-guzzling vehicle, while talking the talk about renewables and less dependence on oil.

Nancy Gesin said board members should be aware of what they are getting into if they invest in a battery energy storage system (BESS). She noted that Achenbach, whose only experience with a co-op before being named head of KIUC was his tenure at Metlakatla, Ala., a tiny, rural community of 3,000, encouraged the purchase of a BESS at great expense to the small hamlet, driving it into bankruptcy.

Gesin challenged Gardiner on his residency, asking how long he’s been a resident of Hawai’i, and whether he receives a permanent-funds-dividend check that is available only to Alaska residents.

For the most part, members of the board seemed disengaged during the public testimony, with only a few actually focusing on speakers and taking notes.

“I’m really concerned about what appears to be shamelessly excessive expenditures by KIUC,” said local business woman Judie Lundborg, who asked for details on board spending. She said she was also disappointed that, when KIUC officials authorized the purchase of nine new vehicles for certain high-ranking employees, none of them were hybrid models that would save on gasoline usage.

“Any trust you might have built up through energy audits and flyers has gone right down the drain,” she said. She said she knows the people who put the co-op together, including Gardiner, and didn’t trust them at that time. “And here we are today,” she said.

After the public testimony concluded, Gardiner said relevant questions would be dealt with and posted on KIUC’s Web site. He did not say when this would happen.

Joey Rebb, who identified herself as a nurse, said she knew an elderly women in the hospital who needed about $100 for Medicaid. Rebb said the woman was afraid to part with it because she would not be able to pay her electricity bill without it.

“We have a responsibility. Let’s do what’s right,” she said. Rebb questioned what kind of a financial package Achenbach is getting, and also inquired whether board members were issued credit cards paid for with KIUC funds. She also asked which KIUC employees received the nine vehicles, and why.

Other speakers asked if travel could not be curtailed a bit by using the Internet to gain information. Speakers also called for more public discussion on major purchases such as Achenbach’s home.

Carol Bain suggested the amendment to the bylaws, calling for KIUC board members to adhere to open-records laws.

Marj Dente told board members that details on why board members go into executive sessions need to be clearer.

“As a co-op member, I want specifics. You must be accountable to us.”

Some co-op members in e-mails or calls to The Garden Island said the afternoon board-meeting times are inconvenient to people who hold full-time, day jobs. They requested information on future KIUC meetings be published elsewhere than exclusively on KIUC’s Web site, which Elmore called “inadequate.”

So far this year, the nine directors and other KIUC employees have accrued more than $112,000 in travel expenses. Gardiner had said earlier the budget for board travel was $50,000.

According to Achenbach, since its inception in 2002, the co-op will have paid out about $16 million in patronage-capital refunds to its members as of December.

KIUC officials will be the “home team” for a national cooperative conference held Wednesday through Friday, Nov. 9 to Nov. 11.

Anne Barnes, KIUC director of communications, said the event is technically being hosted by leaders of the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association (NRECA), but KIUC leaders will be laying out $42,000 in hosting expenses.

The next board meeting is Tuesday, Nov. 29.

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