Board again inviting wrath of legislators
Scrambling to justify the abrupt firing of Juan Garza —a $1 million vote — the board of the Pedernales Electric Cooperative has invited two legislators to stop by for a visit next month.
“There was some anxiety over the Garza matter,” PEC Board Chairman Larry Landaker said of his invitation to state Sen. Troy Fraser and state Rep. Patrick Rose. “We wanted to give them the opportunity to say whatever they want to say.”
That choice of words betrays the tonedeaf approach Landaker took in June when Garza was terminated. Garza was hired as general manager in 2008 to redirect a utility mired in scandal. Garza was working hard to restore its credibility and was blindsided by his termination, as were the utility’s customers, who will pay him a little more than $1 million in severance pay.
Garza wasn’t moving fast enough to suit the board majority, Landaker said, adding in a commentary published here that “CEOs are fired in America every day.”
Fraser, R-Horseshoe Bay, and Rose, DDripping Springs, aren’t “anxious” about the Garza firing; they are downright irritated. Fraser even urged the board to keep Garza and was obviously ignored. Landaker is about to learn that being on the bad side of a state senator or representative is not a good place to be.
“We created Pedernales,” Fraser told the American-Statesman’s Laylan Copelin. “We can uncreate it.”
Those are not the words of an anxious man. They are, however, the words of someone who can introduce legislation that would mandate changes in the way the nation’s largest electric co-op is governed.
Not only are Fraser and Rose irritated about the Garza termination, they are unhappy that the board balked at adopting a package of bylaws that would have made the co-op’s operations more transparent. The co-op covers a wide area of Central Texas, including portions of Travis County, and has more than 200,000 members.
When the American-Statesman reported on the secrecy with which the co-op was managed, its questionable dealings and extravagant spending, co-op members demanded answers as well as action.
Rose, who is up for re-election this year, says he intends to refile legislation next session that would force stricter governance standards on the co-op board. The board balked at reforming itself, Rose said, so the Legislature will do the job for them.
“You can’t depend upon a particular board to necessarily protect the interests of co-op members,” he said. “It shouldn’t be left to the fickleness of any particular board.”
Like Fraser, Rose is communicating determination, not anxiety.
The legislation they are proposing to introduce next year is similar to a bill that died in the final hours of the 2009 session, but Rose said he would file the bill early and expressed confidence that he could muster the votes to get it passed in the House.
The bill that failed would have required the board to comply with Texas open meetings and open records laws and to submit to annual audits by the Public Utility Commission. It also mandated term limits for board members, cuts in their pay and election by single-member district.
The talk of reform is no idle chatter. The co-op was rocked by scandal that sparked the indictments of Bennie Fuelberg, the former general manager, and Walter Demond, the co-op’s former legal counsel, on charges of felony theft. Both deny wrongdoing.
Rose and Fraser are planning to accept Landaker’s invitation to “say whatever they want to say” at the board’s August meeting. There may well be some anxiety in the room, but we’re guessing that it won’t be Rose’s or Fraser’s.