KIUC forum draws small crowd

LIHU‘E — Lack of communication, community trust and strategic planning are some of the key concerns among those seeking a seat on the island’s utility cooperative board for the first time. The incumbents are satisfied with the co-op’s recent efforts toward renewable energy and community outreach.

About two dozen community members turned out for the final of five Kaua‘i Island Utility Cooperative Board of Directors candidate forums early Thursday morning, but countless others had an opportunity to listen in to the event broadcast live on KONG radio station.

The forum, hosted by the Chamber of Commerce and the Lihu‘e Business Association at Kaua‘i Community College, featured seven of nine board candidates: Karen Baldwin, Stu Burley, Pat Gegen, Joanne Georgi, Calvin Murashige, Steve Rapozo and Ken Stokes. Candidate Joel Guy was unable to attend the last few candidate forums due to an injury. Candidate Lesther Calipjo was also not present. For reasons unknown, he has attended one of the five forums. Kurt Akamine of the Chamber delivered concise questions to the panel.

Baldwin said the co-op must rebuild members’ trust through improved communications.

“The board needs to immediately resolve the issue of trust,” said Baldwin, adding that it could be achieved by first talking to members about projects beforehand and, second, offering a process that is fair, including the bidding process.  

Board incumbent Burley said he wants to continue efforts toward hydroelectric power and smart meters while investigating new forms of generation, such as wave energy.

“Wave energy is 800 times more powerful than wind,” he said. “Before the board votes on something, we have to trust the engineers who provide information for the board. The engineers brought smart meters to the board in 2009, and we didn’t vote on it until 2010, after doing year-long research … We trust staff.”

Gegen said the co-op is in need of a change to break up the board’s long-standing six-against-three board voting cycle that defeats efforts to democratize the co-op.

“The three are looking out for your best interest,” he said, referring to current board directors Carol Baine, Jan TenBruggencate and recently departed director Ben Sullivan. “Democracy is a wonderful, messy process that provide people with an understanding of its constituents.”

He said the board’s pursuit of hydroelectric development using a federal regulating agency that caused the first-ever member petition to redo a board vote, could have been avoided had the co-op implemented a democratic communications process.

Georgi said the co-op “rubber stamps” projects and then “shoves them down our throat,” such as smart meters initiative, which has generated community concern. She said the KIUC must look for ways to cut costs and promote openness.

She suggested that the $10 monthly KIUC customer charge to members should be offered to members as a rebate incentive to participate in elections rather than a fee to encourage community engagement.

“The board is not responsive to members right now,” she said. “They should send out a survey annually … for guidance on where they’re going and what they want.”

Murashige said his priorities would be the aggressive development of hydropower, reduce demand and pursue alternative energy.

“The board needs to be sensitive (to membership) but … it’s not effective to poll the public on every decision,” he said. “I have no specific agenda. It’s about the members … Some friends on the golf course asked me why I’m running. I said why not.”

Incumbent Rapozo said his priorities have been rates and member communications, and he plans to stick with the co-op’s strategic plan developed in 2009 and continue the path he started on three years ago.

“It’s not about me. It’s about nine (board members),” he said. “You can have a split board and accomplish nothing.”

Stokes said “greener, sooner, cheaper” are his priorities, and the co-op can get there through a strategic portfolio approach that takes into considering changes in resources.

The smart grid is part of getting greener, he said, but somehow it became sidetracked on smart meters. Sooner can be accomplished by partnering with the county and its efforts. Concerning getting cheaper, he said he’s concerned about rates being locked in at current levels through power purchase agreements, which he said should be better negotiated.

“We’re stuck,” he said. “We need a business model that reduces rates for the future.”

He suggested for revenue generation that the co-op could consider offering island-wide wireless Internet service since it is installing an islandwide smart grid network.

“The challenges we face are like nothing we’ve seen before,” Stokes said. “It requires a strategic thinker. It appears the more important questions aren’t being asked.”

The event was recorded by Ho‘ike Community Television to be aired at a later date. Visit www.hoike.org for broadcast information. For member voting instructions, visit www.kiuc.coop. Readers can also find additional forum coverage in an upcoming Business Monday story in The Garden Island.

• Vanessa Van Voorhis, staff writer, can be reached at 245-3681, ext. 251, or by emailing vvanvoorhis@thegardenisland.com.

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