LIHUE — The Kauai Island Utility Cooperative has spent about $14,000 campaigning for a yes vote in its current special election related to smart meters.
“This is a ballpark amount for advertising, including ads that have been placed but haven’t necessarily run yet,” KIUC spokesman Jim Kelly said.
While some residents are questioning KIUC’s tactics, claiming the co-op shouldn’t be spending member dollars to persuade voters, KIUC says it’s only fair that the board defend its recent decision to charge additional fees for those who opt not to use a wireless smart meter.
“The board makes its decisions based on what they believe to be the best interests of the members and the cooperative and this campaign attempts to explain why this charge is in the best interests of the vast majority of the members,” Kelly wrote.
In the last few weeks, the utility has sent out thousands of postcards, adorned with the words “Vote Yes.” It has also run print and radio advertisements.
“It’s unreasonable to expect that the board would simply stand on the sidelines as spectators during the election and refuse to advocate for their position while allowing the other side to dominate the conversation in the paper, online and on the air,” Kelly said.
Adam Asquith, an anti-fee petitioner, described KIUC’s campaign practices as a “travesty.”
Since the board already made its decision to charge the fees, Asquith said it should be leaving the election up to the voters.
“They’re not letting the members decide,” he said.
While KIUC’s rules do cover campaigning by board candidates, nothing in the bylaws or board policies prohibits “member education on votes,” according to KIUC.
Kelly said the utility does not want to be spending its members’ money on the election. Additionally, “we’d like to not be spending any of our members’ money on lawyers to defend KIUC against someone seeking an injunction to stop the meters fees that were approved by the Public Utilities Commission,” he wrote.
In November, Asquith filed a complaint in 5th Circuit Court Against KIUC seeking a temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction. He argues the co-op was precocious in its billing and hopes the court will stop the utility from charging him to protect his privacy.
“Part of that complaint is billing people before the membership has validated the board action,” he said.
KIUC’s legal bills related to the complaint amount to about $17,000, according to Kelly.
Just like KIUC using advertising to tell its members what’s at stake in the current election, Kelly said it’s “totally reasonable to hire lawyers to make our case in court.”
Kelly said KIUC hasn’t budgeted specific amounts for the current ad campaign or the legal bills.
“I’m taking money from the 2014 advertising budget and moving it up earlier in the year, so this isn’t additional money that’s being spent – just means I’ll have to tighten down later,” he wrote. “I’m also using airtime from the local radio left over from 2013.”
The cost of the current election has been pegged at $63,000, including $30,000 for Merriman River Group, an election management services company on the Mainland.
Out of the utility’s 30,000 customers, about 3,000 have opted not to use wireless smart meters. KIUC estimates the cost of reading and servicing those 3,000 old meters to be about $340,000 per year.
“That works out to just under $1 a month for every one of the cooperative’s members,” the co-op wrote in an October release.
Election ballots were mailed out last week and are due back to KIUC by noon Jan. 25. The fees in question include a one-time set-up charge and a $10.27 monthly fee for customers who opt not to use the new technology. Both fees took effect in November.
• Chris D’Angelo, environmental reporter, can be reached at 245-0441 or firstname.lastname@example.org.