Thursday, April 17, 2014

Potentially Actionable?!?

So now OPALCO is threatening to sue Bob Jarman?

We were going to move on from the OPALCO story, but the following letter just came to light. It seems that after Bob Jarman wrote a letter to the online news outlets raising questions about OPALCO, he received the letter below from OPALCO's legal counsel. We presume the current OPALCO Board authorized the letter ... but if they didn't, that's even worse.

It's a head scratcher. What is it about this place that causes everyone in an official position to view dissent as a crime?

For full disclosure, the Trojan Heron would like nothing better than to have high-speed broadband access for everyone in the islands. We feel it is a necessity for any participant in the modern economy, but holy smokes ... can we get some outfit to provide broadband service who doesn't behave like either OPALCO or Centurynolink?

Saturday, April 12, 2014

OPALCO -- Part Of A Pattern?

OPALCO elections are occurring. We haven't covered or researched OPALCO as much as other local happenings, but candidate Steve Hudson seems to be making good points ... points that have the ring of truth to anyone who has watched county events generally ... secrecy, grandiose plans, financial profligacy, and strong-arm tactics. What's not to believe?

Have a look at a letter Steve wrote on March 25.
To the editor,

I'm a candidate by petition for the Opalco board. I'm writing to state my concerns about what our co-op is doing, and especially how it is being done.

Opalco is owned by its 13000+ customer/members. We elect a board of 7 to represent the members best interest, and prudently run the co-op. The board is subordinate to the owners. If the lights stay on, most customer/member/owners, including me until recently, tend to assume our co-op is doing fine.

Opalco has a proud history as a stable well run electric co-op. Broadband is like the electricity business only in that it requires transmission, distribution, and delivery. The electric business is non-competitive and relatively stable technologically. Broadband is very competitive and rapidly evolving high technology. Co-ops are not for profit entities.

A year or two ago, Opalco proposed a $30+ million expansion of its broadband program, and polled its members to see how many would support their plan. 93% of us members said no by not saying yes. The board backed off this proposal, and seemed willing to grow at a slower pace. Then Centurylinks submarine cable failed last fall and things changed. The board decided to accelerate broadband expansion.

In the last couple months, I've spent many hours trying to understand what Opalco is doing in broadband. I've read the boards proposed by-law and policy changes. I've spoken at length with board members, former board members, employees, competitors, and people close to the situation with years of involvement and insight. It's puzzling and complex. I'm trying to be brief, but please consider the following:

1. By-law and policy changes listed as "action" items on the boards February agenda would have severely reduced the members ability to initiate changes. Under the guise of the board "speaking with one voice", board members who disagree are essentially gagged, and subject to being removed by other board members if they speak their minds publicly. At that February board meeting, several customer/owners spoke against these proposals because they reduced member rights and silenced the diverse thinking that is healthy. The proposals were "tabled", but their content and intent speak volumes about this boards transparency and respect for the members they work for. Tabling the proposals was a tactical move. Public debate about board transparency and reduced member rights just prior to the election of 2 directors wouldn't be helpful if you want to pack the board with people of the same mindset.

2. A few years ago, one of 2 redundant submarine transmission cables from Lopez to San Juan was scheduled to be replace in the next 10 years or so at a cost of $3.3 million. The board president told me it is now scheduled for 2015 at a cost of $15 million. I asked how the cost could be so much higher. Was there other work contained in this budget item? No, he said. There's nothing else in it. The cost increase is from the rise in copper and permitting costs. Coincidentally this cable route does not now have fiber. It is Opalcos weakest broadband link. Is this enormous expense for the needs of the electric grid or to get that fiber in place?

3. The board has provided no financial prospectus to clarify what they are doing in broadband.There's no rate structure in place to project revenue. It's not clear what is being spent, and no way to tell if this massive commitment of your money will pay off, or if the electric ratepayer must foot the bill through more rate increases. The board president, however, insists that the cost of broadband infrastructure along transmission and distribution routes is used for the electric grid anyway, so broadband customers need only to be charged for what is built to connect them. This has at least two dubious consequences: electric ratepayers subsidize broadband ratepayers; and competitors like our local internet service providers are seriously, if not fatally, disadvantaged.

4. This board is not just changing policies, by-laws, and mission statements to justify and control its apparent broadband plans. It is using threats and intimidation to silence its critics and debate in general. You may have seen Randy Cornelius' letter criticizing Bob Jarman's concerns, stated in his letter withdrawing as a candidate. Bob was incorrect in assuming the board passed the policy change muzzling board members, but he was correct in the essence of his concern. As mentioned above, the policy was on the "action" items list of the boards February agenda, and tabled only after encountering opposition from members attending that meeting. This board has a growing reputation for using executive sessions and unannounced meetings to obscure its activities. In addition to Cornelius' public reply to Jarman, Bob also got a letter from Opalcos lawyers containing much identical language. This letter also contained the threat. Really? The board is using our money for lawyers to threaten suit to silence the debate the members need and richly deserve. it's probably safe to assume this unattractive tactic is used on others like employees, directors and former directors. Maybe I'm next.

5. Opalcos town hall meeting in Friday Harbor last week was a disappointment to say the least. Lots of slick graphics, positive slogans, and board charm. But on broadband there was very little of substance. The question of board transparency, which seems to arise only in relation to broadband, was brushed aside until the broadband item on their agenda, which came last. Meaningful debate was just emerging when time ran out. Got to catch that ferry. Board transparency was never discussed.

6. Opalco resources applied to advancing broadband are not available for electric operations. Not just money, but management and board time and attention, engineering, consultants, contractors, crew time and administrative help, all add to the unknown and growing cost. There are many, many miles of deteriorated buried electric cable to be replaced. The older design with exposed neutral conductor becomes unreliable. Electricity goes where it can. Safety and reliability are degraded.

There is more to indicate something is badly amiss. Large scale broadband expansion fundamentally redefines what our co-op is and does. It should be done only after rigorous evaluation and open debate; and only with solid approval by the members who must pay the bill.

I urge the press to do their readers the service of seriously examining this situation. I urge the members to do some homework and vote their ballots. I urge the board, and especially the individual board members, to rethink their respective positions. Your policies speak of high ethical standards. Are you in compliance with the spirit of those policies?

Opalco should use its surplus fiber capacity to haul broadband for other providers. I don't htink it should be in the retail internet or phone business. The people currently on the board are obviously intelligent, successful, and capable. Maybe they're a little blinded by the dazzling promise of broadband and pressure from "true believers", but that end has not been shown to be wise, and does not justify these means.

My candidates statement/bio as submitted to Opalco is attached FYI.


Steve Hudson
Friday Harbor

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Mission of Tyranny -- Second in a Series

Tyranny is the cruel use of power. Oppressing and harassing neighbors for no good reason is not a "value" our community should have to tolerate, but it has become the specialty of the “Friends."

Originally, this article was going to tell the tales of two sets of victims of "Friends" tyranny, but one of our stories ended up being too painful for the victims to re-tell. It was deleted ... testimony to the personal toll taken by the stress of being in a battle with the "Friends" of the San Juans. The grief and anguish of the ordeal with the "Friends" literally made the victims ill, and they did not want to re-live the pain. They are not alone. The "Friends" have plagued our community for many years, and there are many stories to tell.

Causing trouble between neighbors has nothing to do with saving the environment. Nevertheless, in a recent newsletter, the "Friends" of the San Juans stated their mission as:
To protect the land, water, sea, and livability of the San Juan Islands through science, education and advocacy. [1]
This is their public face. This is what they want you to believe, but the truth is starkly different. The "Friends" mission statement belies their practice of simply using our legal system to oppress people they don’t like. Their tactic is to turn neighbor against neighbor in order to raise money using a false narrative of environmental protection. They often exploit disputes between neighbors, waging vendettas that have nothing to do with their stated mission. 

The story of Helen King is a case in point.

Helen King is in her 80’s and has been running a small Bed & Breakfast on the west side of San Juan Island for many years in harmony with her neighbors. Evenutally, Helen decided she wanted to sell her B&B and retire ... that is, until the "Friends" got involved. As Helen explains it,
I have the Highland Inn Bed and Breakfast on Hannah Road, San Juan Island. The B&B permit does not go with the land but after trying to sell it as a residence for many years, I had a buyer who only was interested in buying it with a B&B permit.
The “Friends” objected to the sale of Helen's property as a B&B, and in so doing, they ruined her chances of selling her property, stopping her retirement plans cold. According to Helen,
ONE neighbor, active with the ‘Friends of the San Juans,’ objected. All the other neighbors were in support and most wrote letters praising my establishment.  There was never a complaint from anyone in fifteen years of operation.[2]
Helen describes what happened when she tried to get permission to transfer her B&B permit to complete the sale.
The “Friends” attorney (Kyle Loring) was at my hearing.  One of my neighbors read the Friend’s mission statement out loud and said to him, ‘I really don’t know how this concerns your group. Why are you here!’  The audience applauded in agreement! As a result of the Friends interference I lost the sale, as the buyers were only interested in having the property as a B&B.  I am still trying to sell as a residence with a vacation rental permit, but this is two years later!  How sad, but for the Friends, I could now be retired and the couple from Tennessee could have had their dream bed and breakfast inn. 
Using tenuous logic, the "Friends" justified their involvement by alleging that a B&B has a greater impact on the environment than a single family residence because of higher occupancy. Ironically, however, Helen was granted a "vacation rental permit" that allows even greater occupancy than a B&B ... so the proposed sale stopped by the Friends represented a lower occupancy than Helen was allowed by law.

In a postscript Helen writes:
In the end I was granted a "vacation rental permit" for anyone buying it, which allows NINE guests, (currently I am allowed two couples with the B&B permit), and no supervision.  The B&B permit requires the owner live on the premises. Is a vacation rental better for the neighborhood?
Helen’s experience with the “Friends” is unfortunately typical. The "Friends" escalate minor disputes into costly land use battles having nothing to do with the environment. It has become their trademark ... and has nothing to do with either their mission or with friendship.

[1] 2013 Annual Report, Friends of the San Juans publication
[2] Freedom Foundation

Helen King -- another Friends victim

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

County Flush With Cash

No, not an April Fool's joke, just an elementary deduction based on the raises the County Council is handing out.

When the Charter Amendments were being contemplated, one of the questions asked was, "Should a small rural county pay its County Administrator more than the Governor gets paid?" With the passage of the Charter Amendments and the hiring of Mike Thomas, that problem was fixed ... we only paid our new County Manager about as much as the Washington State Treasurer instead of the Governor. But apparently that's not enough because three weeks ago our Council gave Mike Thomas a 7% raise, about half of it retroactive to the beginning of the year (see image at the bottom of this post). That now makes our County Manager more highly paid than anyone in State government except for the Attorney General and the Governor.

And speaking of fiscal responsibility, wouldn't it be nice if someone ... anyone ... involved in the financial chaos of our county public institutions finally spoke up and admitted the faults that are so plain to outsiders?

Meet Bill Evans of Lopez who has been serving as the Lopez/Decatur Superintendent of Schools. Last year, the Lopez School District tried to get voter approval for a $15.5 million bond measure to renovate the Lopez school campus. The bond measure got crushed at the polls, and during the election campaign, the school board received howls of criticism for being financially irresponsible. At the next election, a slate of financial reform candidates ran for office ... but paradoxically, they lost. The "bond board" stayed in office.

In the past few days, the Lopez School Board announced the resignation of Bill Evans. Below is the text of Bill Evans' resignation letter. It's a doozy, but I hope it inspires other public servants to be honest with the public. 

Thanks, Bill, for doing the right thing.
The District has suffered some unfortunate shortcomings of late in our human resources and financial oversight functions, involving potentially significant negative impact upon financial, management, and other resources. IRS reports and required fund deposits were not made in a timely manner, employee records have not been kept accurate, and payroll and benefits calculations have not been consistently accurate. The late IRS reports and deposits have resulted in potentially serious fines and penalties. The inaccuracy of personnel records has resulted in significant inconvenience and financial impact to individual employees. We have incurred significant consultant costs in attending to the problems we have discovered.

We have diligently and conscientiously attended to each negative issue as immediately as possible upon discovery. I am very impressed with the efforts of our current District Office staff and consultants in these efforts. We are moving forward with appropriate interventions and strategies to mitigate the negative effects of all of this, including aggressively appealing to the IRS for possible abatement of the fines and penalties.

Throughout my career as an educational leader I have tried to lead with integrity and an allegiance to an ethic of service. A cornerstone of that ethic of service is the conviction that I am ultimately responsible to the organization for its sustainability and continued growth. The buck does, indeed, stop with me. I am deeply sorry that these shortcomings have happened to the District on my watch and I accept responsibilities for them.

It is clear that the part-time model for the District Office that we have tried hard to implement, is not working as effectively as we have needed. We need to look at other options. We are currently aggressively exploring the idea of outsourcing appropriate elements of our financial requirements to experienced personnel and resources at one of the several ESD’s that have such technical services to provide. We are also looking at a different model of District leadership. In the face of ever-increasing demands of bureaucratic accountability and state and federal mandates, some serious decisions will need to be made about how to efficiently provide the management support this organization absolutely needs, while also striving to maximize resources to focus upon the academic side of the equation. It is clear that we must find the right service model for our District Office, to avoid future issues such as this.

To support full consideration of multiple options for a new model of leadership, and to provide flexibility to implement appropriate options, I have adjusted my long-term retirement plans and I am recommending to the Board that you accept my resignation from the District, as soon into SY 2014-15 as it takes to successfully hire and transition to a new Superintendent. It is the right thing to do for the District. By my stepping aside, the District will have an opportunity to seek new leadership, with a different skill set than I have to offer. We need a Superintendent whose skills include a high degree of financial savvy, to complement the outsourcing of financial services and provide the necessary oversight of that outsourcing. I pledge my full energies, for as many months as it takes into SY 2014-15, toward assisting in the transition and the restructuring and rebuilding of the District Office. It is my strong recommendation that we initiate posting for a new Superintendent/Finance Director position as soon as possible within the next few weeks.

I take responsibility for the current shortcomings and very much regret their happening on my watch. I believe my recommendations represent a positive action plan toward a preferred future. I recommend serious consideration of these recommendations and I hold great optimism for the opportunities afforded the District by these recommendations.

Thank you.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Ah, Have Scott Call Me ...

We'd like to know what's going on too, Jessica.

Back on February 9, we covered a story about Orcas Island Fire & Rescue (OIFR), which drew the ire of some usually supportive TH readers. They'll probably be mad at us again because of this post. As we reported back on February 9, many Orcasites have questions about the management of OIFR. There is no doubt that Orcas firefighters have behaved heroically in battling some very dangerous blazes, especially of late. But for many Orcasites, that heroism exists alongside questionable management decisions and behavior ... it exists alongside the alleged cover-up of a suspected DUI involving one of their own, Jack Delisle ... and it also seems to exist alongside a deepening siege mentality that lashes out at any critique.

Orcas Issues recently carried an editorial about the OIFR DUI controversy, which (along with other OIFR questions) is being brought into greater focus because of an upcoming vote about an OIFR levy. The old propane tank at the Country Corner, which serves as a makeshift Orcas community painting board for events, currently says "Vote no on the fire levy ... government accountability starts at home!"

Lord knows that Orcas has suffered more than its fair share of failed government accountability over the past few years ... the Charles Dalton situation, the Eastsound mosquito hatchery, floods in Eastsound, the Mt. Baker Road project, the Deer Harbor bridge ... and representation by electeds who seem hell bent on throwing us all under the CAO bus. If people are getting fed up, is it any wonder why?

Below is a recording of the report of the Delisle accident by OIFR Deputy Chief Mik Preysz (pronounced "price" for you non-Orcasites) to the San Juan County Sheriff's Office. The recording was obtained via a public records request. It's been making the rounds on Orcas ... people playing it for one another on their cell phones ... and passing it around via email too.

The call was logged at 3 a.m. on March 9, 2013. For context, you can refer to our original blog post from February 9, which includes the police report of the incident along with inserted questions of a commenter from Orcas. Note too that the police report doesn't seem to be entirely accurate with respect to the phone call from Preysz either.

Maybe the whole thing is no big deal, but would you have been treated this way? Does it sound like normal procedure to you? Can we have Sgt. Brennan call us the next time we get in a scrape?

Propane Tank -- some readers questioned the tank message aspect of the story, so here is a photo.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Buh Bye To Another Island Way Of Life

Editor's Note - the "Broken Dreams" series begun with the last post will be interspersed among other TH stories. Until the next one (probably in a couple of weeks), we now return to our regularly scheduled programming.

Below is a plea from a Lopezian to help save another endangered way of life under threat from a governmental agency's senseless desire for control and pointless regulation. It's just one more straw on the camel's back of rural character and independence.

Friday, March 7, 2014

Broken Dreams - First In A Series

As anyone who has watched County events over the past few years would know, our local government is in the business of crushing dreams, not making them come true. If you've watched with anger and disappointment as our elected Council heaps abusive laws on us, you might have come to the conclusion that we should just let the Department of Ecology appoint our Councilmen so we can at least save money on elections. It couldn't be any worse. The abusive laws allow the Friends of the San Juans to harass us. The process has become the punishment. Tonight we start the first of a series telling the stories of islanders.

The Lopez Islander Resort

“Friends” and Neighbors in the San Juans

The ability to run a small lodging business in San Juan County is at risk as long as the “Friends” (of the San Juans) are your neighbors. They may say that they support tourism and small business but that is disingenuous and here’s why.

The Lopez Islander Resort has been a landmark in Fisherman’s Bay for almost 70 years. It was first established in 1945 when Nan and Otto Perkins moved to Lopez Island after the war. On a cold stormy night a few years later the resort burned to the ground. Neighbors held a party at Woodman Hall where they donated enough money to help rebuild the restaurant and a few guest rooms. That was back in the days when “friends” meant something entirely different than it does today.

In the following years the resort went through a series of owners. Mr. Wally Trace purchased the property in 1992 as Lopez Islander Inc. and immediately applied for and received approval of a Shoreline Conditional Use Permit for further expansion of the resort and marina. At that time none of the neighbors opposed the project. However, the resort went bankrupt after completing their improvements. It’s not easy to run a business like this in San Juan County, even with community support.

In 1997 Diller Associates purchased the resort. The place was a bit run down and had been for sale for about 3 years. Bill Diller made it very clear from the beginning that he would be “sprucing up” the resort. He had been a frequent visitor to the islands and was excited about the possibility of owning a small business that served his community and employed more than 25 local islanders during tourist season.

After fixing up the resort and getting it back into business, the Dillers saw the potential to do more with their investment. In 2010, Diller Associates applied for a permit to expand the marina to accommodate an additional 50 moorage slips. They ran into some roadblocks because of a small patch of eelgrass. At this point they didn’t feel like fighting for the permit, but two years later they needed to grow their business.

There were campsites on the property for families on a budget and the owners saw the need to add a few more as well as several RV campsites. They wanted to tear down and replace some of the older cabins and add a new building with 7 guest rooms, which was allowed outright under the zoning code. They also applied for a shoreline permit to build a small structure for a kayak rental business. They didn’t expect a fight over this modest expansion but they got one from the “Friends” of the San Juans.

The “Friends” were called into action by a small group of neighbors who for whatever reason wanted the project stopped[1]. The neighbors solicited by email, “tax deductible contributions to the Friends of the San Juans ... that will be applied directly to fund Laura’s work.” [2] (Former Planning Director Laura Arnold).

The “Friends” stepped in with their team of litigators and organized against the Dillers, even though the project was perfectly legal under the County’s land use codes.[3] This is an example of the “Friends” tactic of turning neighbor against neighbor. All of the surrounding neighbors purchased property next to an existing resort. Why would they all of a sudden object to the resort?

The Friends hired Laura Arnold to help them fight the project. In an email message Ms. Arnold said,
“It appears to me that the County Code anticipates this type and intensity of use in this land-use district and would, I expect, find it difficult to deny the proposal . . .”[4]
The Dillers held a public meeting in August 2012 to listen and respond to the concerns of their neighbors. They made concessions and changed the site plan in an effort to mitigate concerns.

This did not deter this group of activists and attorneys from going ahead and appealing the permit and arguing before the Hearing Examiner. It was a “change of use” they declared and therefore subject to mitigation. The Dillers persevered, and the “Friends” succeeded in adding substantial costs to the small business.

This time the Diller’s were determined to fight their way through the process. After hiring engineers and consultants to do all types of studies demanded by the “Friends,” and hiring land use experts and attorneys, they had invested more than six figures to get a permit that without the intervention of the “Friends” would have been routinely approved.

While this battle was being fought the “Friends” published a county-wide mailer entitled, “Shorelines: Where We Live, Work, & Play.” In it they say,
"Protecting our shorelines is good for our economy and our environment. Our visitors contributed over $158.5 million to our local economy last year,” said Stephanie Buffum, Executive Director of “FRIENDS” of the San Juans.
If the “Friends” acknowledge the importance of tourism to our local economy then why did they take up a fight to cripple a small scale lodging business by challenging permits for a modest expansion? The local lodging industry is the basic driving force for low impact island tourism and contributes millions each year to the community through lodging taxes. It is a fact that small-scale island resorts benefit the local economy in many ways, not the least of which is attracting customers who spend money and support other island businesses. The evidence suggests that the “Friends” don’t really want people to “Live, Work, & Play” anywhere near the shoreline.

The ability to run a small business is at risk as long as the “Friends” are your neighbors. For a business investor, risking capital to hire attorneys and other professionals to face endless challenges by the “Friends” for a simple permit reduces potential profitability and discourages investment. Who is it that makes a community thrive? Is it people who invest in it and work hard or the people who organize neighbor against neighbor to restrict the very things that create economic vitality? Perhaps the “Friends” need to find the answer to that question before they focus their special interest litigation machine against other island neighbors.
[1] Email from Mr. Rick Strachan, 5/20/13, “It may well be true that this application will be decided on strict issues enumerated in the application, but it seems that all our concerns stem from Mr. Diller himself, not from the proposal itself.” 
[2] Email 5/11/13 from Peter Cavanagh to neighbors. 
[3] A hotel/motel is allowed outright in the Village Commercial Zone.  Campgrounds (RV and tent camping) require a conditional use permit approval. This information is found in Table 3.1 of the Unified Development Code. 
[4] Email 5/11/13 from Peter Cavanagh to neighbors.