Guest Viewpoint for Monday — December 12, 2005

Community being left out of KIUC decision-making


• Community being left out of KIUC decision-making

The recent firestorm of criticism directed toward Kauai Island Utility Coopertive (KIUC) comes as no surprise to me. KIUC’s board is the root of the problem regardless of whether reporting by The Garden Island may have spun molehills into mountains.

Having attended roughly 10 board meetings, I can assure Kaua’i that KIUC only pays lip service to the principle of open governance. Public comment is very limited and must take place at the beginning of the (intentionally?) vague agenda. One past board member told me that this system was purposefully designed to prevent KIUC’s board meetings from turning into the street theater that County Council meetings have become. Further, with no camera to play to, the usual “activists” would have no wider audience to play to. While this may weed out attention seekers, it also makes most public testimony meaningless.

Moreover, the meetings are nearly useless in terms of public oversight. Virtually all debate takes place via e-mail or in closed committee meetings long before the Board meets. Any details are buried in the Director’s briefing books. I have also witnessed Directors contributing by phone asking “who’s in the room” before they speak. While it is true that the final actions are taken in public, only the 9 directors really know what the ins and outs of the decision making process were. That’s a shame and it really sends a message as to how the directors approach their duty to the community. It smacks of plantation paternalism. Small wonder the newspapers and the public don’t bother to attend meetings.

It’s undoubtedly true that only a very small percentage of KIUC’s budget goes toward things that could be affected by malfeasance by the Board. But even 0.3-percent-1-percent of the $100-125 million per year KIUC controls is a pretty large sum. Many of us would prefer to have lower rates (or larger capital rebates) than have our Directors decide which charities or politicians should receive donations on our behalf.

Do we really need so much director travel? Who took the responsibility for appointing a CEO and then forcing him out in less than 2 years with a sweetened “retirement”?

The debate over expenses is just a symptom of the underlying problem. What we are lacking is true transparency. KIUC continues to avoid coming clean with regard to certain expenses and activities. Their answers to many question posted on their website are merely dodges. Why are consulting contracts “secret”?

I can understand that our consultants might not wish their hourly rates to be published, but why can we not know how much was spent in total? Why can we not know which directors draw the most in terms of the daily fees? Just what is being discussed with our County Government regarding plans for an incinerator? How much is being spent on entertainment expenses? What political lobbying is being done in our name? Is there something to be ashamed of or is it just more convenient to work in the dark without public knowledge or interference?

We are at this point because of the makeup of our Board. It consists primarily of retired/failed politicians and their closely associated business community members. These folks are used to working together behind closed doors. Even our County Council, which is bound by State Sunshine law, regularly flouts the spirit of those rules. This is the way things have been done here since 1960 and before, and it’s unlikely anything will change unless we change who we elect. And as long as KIUC’s board nominating committee comes from this same small group, we’ll only have their hand picked candidates to choose from unless people self-nominate. Unfortunately, self nominations leading to election have only come from those with name recognition, primarily from local politics, perpetuating this incestuous mix. If the community continues to not care who runs KIUC (election turnouts are very low), this is the governance we’ll get.

Are these bad people doing the wrong thing? Of course not. The Board works many hours for what is trivial pay to most of them. Their major decisions have been sound in my opinion. However, failing to let the rest of us into the decision making process has left many in the community with a bad feeling. Putting out newsletters regarding the trivialities of day to day operations while keeping the big items under wraps does not pass the community’s smell test, and they have only themselves to blame.

  • David Camp is an Aliomanu resident.
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