KIUC members affirm Free Flow contract

  LIHU‘E — By a more than two-to-one margin, members of the island’s sole electric provider have directed their elected co-op’s leaders to stay the course.

Kaua‘i Island Utility Cooperative on Friday announced the results of a member-driven vote on whether to overturn its Board of Directors’ recent decision to contract with Free Flow Power to explore hydropower on six island waterways.

The ballot initiative produced 5,404 votes in favor of continuing the contract and 2,098 votes against. Voter participation was more than 30 percent. Comparatively, voter participation for the Board of Directors election last March was 25 percent, down from 28 percent the previous year.

“We would like to say mahalo to the hundreds of community members who came out to our public meetings and actively participated in KIUC’s outreach process,” KIUC Board Chair Teofilo “Phil” Tacbian said in a press release. “We take to heart all of your comments, both supportive and critical, and we look forward to continuing to reach out to the entire Kaua‘i community as we explore hydropower for our island.”

Tacbian added that the board is “grateful for the support our members have shown, and we remain committed to the principals outlined in our board resolution passed in April, which mandates continued long-term outreach efforts, while considering agricultural, cultural, recreational and environmental interests in our evaluation of hydropower’s potential on Kaua‘i.

“We look forward to engaging in a process to determine the blueprint for how responsible hydropower development can be determined for Kaua‘i,” he said.

Kaua‘i taro farmer Adam Asquith, who filed the petition to overturn the board’s decision, argued against FFP’s use of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission process.

Asquith, a hydropower supporter, has said it is a mistake to unnecessarily place the sustainability of Kaua‘i’s waterways in the hands of a federal agency rather than the state’s, which is more sensitive to the needs of Hawai‘i’s farmers, wildlife and cultural water interests. By engaging FERC, he said, the co-op is inviting legal intervention by state and private organizations against the use of FERC-related projects.

“I wasn’t holding my breath,” Asquith said of the vote results. “I wasn’t really optimistic because of the way the vote was conducted … It’s the tyranny of the majority. The system doesn’t work when it comes to water. This is the only mechanism we had to address the issue with the co-op. The larger issue is how we deal with water, which was the emphasis in the beginning. If we continue in this line, we will be shut down in all our attempts at hydro.”

When asked if he plans to participate in the community outreach and stakeholder feedback process under the FERC preliminary permitting process, he said no.  

“I don’t believe the FERC process is necessary or productive, so I won’t participate because I don’t want to acknowledge or support that process,” he said. “I’ll just wait for other opportunities to make sure (our) voice is heard.”

Though Asquith said he spent an “enormous” amount of time generating the petition, attending meetings and talking with the community about the issues, the efforts were not in vain because now the community is more informed and engaged. 

“This (petition) process made (the board) go back to the state, and they found out licensing with FERC is off the table,” he said. “I can’t believe any (board) member would hold the option open to fight the state … I think a lot of good came out of it. I think we’re still at the beginning of the conversation. The vote doesn’t reflect my perspective on hydro or hope. I hope we get there in spite of where we’re at right now.”

The state clarified its position in a statement last month, which said the state has concerns that utilizing a federal “licensing” process, under FERC, could interfere with the state’s  role in governing water use. State officials have discussed these concerns with KIUC and acknowledge that the utility to date has made no commitment to seek a federal license.

Election management consultant Merriman River Group certified the results of the vote. MRG has managed the counting and certification of KIUC’s board elections since 2009, the release states. Observers of the ballot count included a representative of the petitioners.

“We look forward to further discussing the role that hydropower and other renewables play in achieving our strategic plan goals of reaching at least 50 percent renewable supplied power for Kaua‘i,” KIUC CEO David Bissell said in a statement. “Receiving input from all Kaua‘i stakeholders, KIUC members, state and local leaders and those that have concerns about our hydropower evaluation alike, will be an essential component of our continued assessment of hydropower resources on Kaua‘i.

“We continue to believe that KIUC’s low cost of capital, tax-exempt and non-profit status provides the best and lowest-cost structure for hydropower development,” he said. “As a member-owned cooperative with a board elected by the members, KIUC’s evaluation criteria will always be based on what is best for Kaua‘i without a profit motive interfering with that ultimate responsibility.”

KIUC budgeted $60,000 for the petition-driven member vote, which is the same amount the co-op budgets for board-member elections, said KIUC spokeswoman Anne Barnes. When asked how much the co-op spent on advertising the board’s position, she said she did not have the exact number readily available but could provide it on Monday.

A vote on the vote

Meanwhile, Jonathan Jay, a program host at KKCR, is gathering member signatures to overturn the board’s decision on how it conducted the vote.

Community members and organizations have criticized KIUC for not providing its members with fair and balanced information in voter materials. The co-op has strongly advocated in support of its board’s decision, urging members to vote “yes” on the ballot while implying that a “no” vote may mean the end of future hydropower development on Kaua‘i.

Jay has argued that the July 8 deadline for members to submit ballots, a deadline set by the board, did not allow enough time for members to educate themselves on the issues prior to voting.

“We are going forward undeterred, collecting signatures and will submit them on Monday,” Jay said.

So far, he has collected 200 of the 250 necessary member signatures to file the petition, which would require a member vote on the member vote.  

“KIUC really knows how to throw an election,” he said. “The (current) results would be meaningful, if it was a fair and free election, and that’s why we’re going forward with the petition gathering.”

Those who wish to participate in the petition may download it at islandbreath.org, sign it and drop it off at Small Town Coffee in Kapa‘a, he said.

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