A Successful 2015-2016 Year at PEC Capped Off by Exemplary Annual Meeting

PEC held its Annual Membership Meeting at the Performing Arts Center of Dripping Springs High School this past Saturday. More than 600 members came from across the PEC service territory to vote in the 2016 Board Director elections; peruse employee exhibits; enter drawings for door prizes; hear about the status of their co-op from PEC CEO John Hewa; and snag some breakfast tacos and snow cones while they were at it. For the past eight years, Directors and Employees alike have been working hard to recover from the damage we incurred under past leadership. Finally, at this year’s meeting, both member and PEC employee alike felt as if the familial quality we lost in those darker days had been regained. Members were proud of their linemen. Employees were excited to greet their members and answer questions about their electric service. Member comments were resoundingly positive, and Board Directors were ready to hear member suggestions and constructive criticisms in hopes of identifying creative solutions that put the members first above all else. It was a wonderful example of what a Co-op should be and can be when the right people and the right attitudes are involved.

 

The day marked the capstone of a Co-op year (June-to-June as our PEC calendar goes) in which we have accomplished so much. Some of the highlights of note include: six consecutive rate reductions that will be followed up by a 7th reduction (2 mils) due to roll out in August; a successful switchover to a new enterprise software system that has already saved the Co-op millions of dollars in less than a year of its operation; an on-Bill solar financing program that is a unique and creative way to help interested members pursue rooftop solar without needing subsidization from their fellow members (the opposite of rebates); a complete overhaul of our charitable giving programs that puts more control in the hands of members (this will be the topic of my next post); and the release of a new rate study that will soon yield decreased Service Availability Charges for members who choose eBills and Bank Drafts. The rate study will also yield long awaited Time of Use rates that will allow participating members the opportunity to alter their energy habits, consume more off peak power, and further decrease their electric bills. Without a doubt, CEO Hewa and his highly capable Executive Team and staff have delivered on what the Board has asked them to deliver. We now have a more efficient, more responsive, more member-oriented, more nimble co-op that is showing us the real meaning of being “always on” for our members and the communities we serve.

 

At the Annual Meeting, Survey and Ballot Systems (SBS) – the firm that has run the PEC Director Elections the past few years – announced that District 5 Incumbent and Board President James Oakley had resoundingly won re-election, and Jim Powers, who ran unopposed to fill the seat left by retiring District 4 Director Chris Perry, had claimed a spot on the Board as well. Oakley won by more votes than any Director-Candidate had ever received in a contested election since the reform elections of 2008, a further indication that members are behind the improvements the Co-op is delivering these days.

 

Following the Annual Meeting, the Board held an organizational meeting to elect its 2016-2017 slate of officers. I was honored by my colleagues at that time with my election to the office of Board President. Oakley was elected Vice-President, and District 6 Director Paul Graf was re-elected Secretary/Treasurer for a second consecutive year. I must take a minute to thank Director Oakley for his outstanding leadership this past year as Board President. He managed to do the impossible – which was oversee our transition from at least two board meetings a month to just one, as is written in the PEC bylaws. By cutting down on the number of times we meet each month we are saving the Co-op money and saving our staff precious time that they can now use to further the Strategic Plan we have in place for them. Members must know that decreasing the number of our meetings was no small feat – prior Boards had been attempting to cut back on our trips to Johnson City for years, and under Director Oakley’s leadership, we were finally able to get it done. He also made sure we got through an aggressive amount of agenda items each meeting by keeping our conversations on point and attentions in the Board Room focused on the topics at hand. As a mother with small children back home, I was particularly appreciative of the improved efficiency – the difference between arriving home at 5:30, as opposed to 7:30, to two (now three!) little ones makes a big difference to me, and I know PEC staff and the rest of the Board Members feel the same way. I also thought Director Oakley’s method of asking for questions or commentary from our member audiences kept things fresh and kept the free flow of ideas between members, employees, and Board Members at the forefront of our Board Meetings. No doubt I’ll have big shoes to fill, and I’ll have my work cut out for me in ensuring we continue on an upward trend towards the big successes we on the Board envision for PEC in the future.

 

It’s been a pleasure to serve on the PEC Co-op Board for the past two years. I never dreamed in 2014 when I first joined this body that we would change so much for the better. While we can attribute much of our success to the strategic vision we’ve put in place at the Board level, far more of the credit belongs with our hard working Executive team, led by CEO Hewa, and the tremendous PEC employees, whom consistently demonstrate their commitment to making the Co-op experience a positive one for our members. The future at PEC is bright, and I look forward to seeing all that we have yet to accomplish in the Co-op year ahead.

Perspective for 2015

Happy New Year Co-op members!  It’s been a couple months since my last entry, which is mostly due to the hectic nature of the Thanksgiving and Christmas season and some year end travel. After a year of hard work and goals achieved, my family and I took the final weeks of 2014 to spend some much-needed quality time together and to focus on the most important things in life, which for us amounts to God and each other. It’s important to recharge and refocus every now and again, and after being able to do so, I feel ready to chase new goals in 2015.

In my mind, the best place to start goal setting is in reflection on recent experiences. Here are my takeaways from 2014 for better Board service this year:

  1. Welcome criticism – of all kinds.

One thing that is hard for everyone to stomach is criticism. It’s hard to hear that your performance does not measure up to people’s expectations. Especially for those amongst us that fit the “over-achiever” mold, getting anything less than an “A” stings.  I had the good fortune of growing up with a hyper-critical father.  At the time, I didn’t consider myself fortunate when I would ask him to read a paper I had spent days perfecting only to have it returned to me riddled with red ink and entire paragraphs crossed out. Eventually I picked up on what he wanted to teach me, which was how to be comfortable with criticism, and once I saw how his relentless corrections and suggestions affected my final product, I realized I should be grateful rather than annoyed. As my dad demonstrated to me when my papers went from B quality to A quality, it is really hard to deliver elite performances without the natural refinement that comes from responding productively to criticism. We should not be afraid to hear from the naysayers, as they provide us with the best opportunity to be better at what we do.

For PEC, that means that we should welcome the remarks of our biggest critics. Even if I, as a Board Member, do not agree with every critique we receive, I appreciate the perspective of someone who sees a particular issue differently than I do. PEC has a handful of members that let us know regularly things we could be doing better. Thank goodness for that! I hope they keep up their comments, however harsh they might be. We had a member recently send us a letter about transparency and openness at the Co-op, entitled Proposal for a True Open Records Policy at Pedernales Electric Cooperative, Inc., which we will be discussing at our Committee of the Whole meeting on Monday.   Detailed, thought-provoking critiques like that of this letter that force us to look at things we are doing or not doing with a new set of eyes.

  1. Be responsible for your own education.

My first six months as a Director for Pedernales Electric provided me with several learning moments and exposed me to the intricacies of the electric utility world, specifically electric co-ops. The energy landscape is constantly changing, and while it may be impossible to stay ahead of the curve, there is a lot that I can do as a Board Member to be more knowledgable and perform better in the Board Room. Most of the education I’ve gotten has come from me being proactive in seeking it out – whether it is asking PEC management and staff questions; talking to other professionals in different sectors of the utility world; reading endless articles people send me; checking energy news feeds daily; and listening to those from the PEC membership that happen to know a lot about our industry, I’ve spent countless hours listening and absorbing so that I can make informed decisions. This educational activity, while time consuming, is very important to do, and I’ll keep putting in the hours because the decisions we make on the PEC Board affect you, the member, in significant ways.  I want to be in the best shape possible to make those decisions.

As a side bar, I’d like to report on another educational opportunity I had recently. In December I traveled to Nashville for a week to complete my Bylaws-required NRECA Credentialed Cooperative Director classes. As it currently states in the PEC Bylaws, a new Board Member must complete all five of these courses before the end of his or her first year on the Board. Since Spring 2015 is going to be very busy for me and my family, I decided the safest bet for me was to knock out all five courses at once at the NRECA Winter School. I have to admit that I was skeptical upon embarking on my trip to Nashville that this week away from my family right before Christmas would be worth my time. I will say, however, that while much of the information was a repeat of things I’d already learned through my own initiative, a few of the classes turned out to be very educational.  (One particular instructor gave me some great insight into power supply – I hope I have the chance to interact with him again.)  I don’t think it’s necessary to take these courses frequently, but depending on the course and the instructor, NRECA educational opportunities can be beneficial. I’ve had several members question me directly about the costs surrounding Director education, and some have asked me specifically to tell them how much my trips would cost. On this trip to Nashville, I made a point of living as frugally as possible. I opted to use the per diem for meals and incidentals as opposed to reimbursing all meal receipts. I didn’t rent a car, and I only took a cab twice to get meals outside of the hotel, as it was incredibly expensive to eat at the Gaylord Opryland, which is where the conference occurred. Even with my efforts to keep costs down, I’ll be reimbursed over $2,000 for my trip, which doesn’t include my airfare or the cost of the classes themselves.

All things considered, I benefited from the education I received in Nashville. However, I believe the focus on education can be local and still provide us with the knowledge we need to do our jobs. There is a lot we can learn from experts here, and perhaps we need to look into ways we can bring educators from NRECA to us in order to avoid expensive travel costs.

  1. You can’t please everybody.

PEC currently has over 250,000 member-owners, and each of them has his or her own ideas about how the Co-op should operate. While it is vitally important to remain in tune with what the membership wants and the specific issues that are brought forward, I must also remember that you all elected me to do a job on your behalf. My job is to uphold the Co-op’s Bylaws and perform my fiduciary duties to ensure PEC is grounded in sound business principles and delivering, safe, reliable, and affordable electricity to you every day. I know there are people that disagree with my perspective and the decisions I make in the Board Room. That reality will continue.  As Directors we are called upon to make some hard choices, and as a result, people get upset regardless of the positions we take. It’s no secret that I lean hard towards fiscal conservatism, and because I believe low cost electricity benefits us all, especially the most vulnerable amongst us, you can expect me to continue to make decisions with that leading principle in mind.  Regardless of who that attitude might upset.

 Looking ahead to 2015…

There are a lot of important things coming up in 2015 of which PEC members should take note. We will shortly have the results of our Integrated Resource Plan, which will give us a better picture of our power supply options in the near future. We will complete a Cost of Service and Rate Design Study, which will include member-input opportunities. Be sure to check out the PEC Website for more information, and I’ll post information here and on my Facebook page as well. The debate over our potential Renewable Energy investments also looms on the horizon. I ask that you stay informed and ask questions if you have them.  Your input is as important now as it’s ever been.

As always, it is an honor to serve the PEC membership.

Refining PEC Processes: Part 1

This entry begins a four part series concerning recent PEC Board activity and discussions. We have a lot happening in our co-op these days. The last few meetings have brought about a number of items that deserve member attention, and I wanted to take the time to bring each of those things into context for you.

Part one of this series will deal with a potentially significant change to our PEC director election process. Part two concerns director education. Part three addresses rates. Part four will focus on our community involvement. With all of the pivotal things happening in the news today – ISIS; Scotland’s failed bid for Independence; the 2014 elections – I wouldn’t expect all of you to be keeping close tabs on the PEC board meetings. However, the topics included in this series of entries to varying degrees affect the health of our co-op, and I wanted you to be made aware of them. (To see the fully recorded board meetings, click here.)

PART ONE:  PEC Board narrowly passes potentially significant modification to Director Election process

PEC has benefitted from a much-improved election process since the Fuelberg era, and yet members and candidates in recent years have presented several shortcomings with the current system. The first shortcoming, of course, deals with the size of the co-op. With over 250,000 eligible member-owners from 24 counties, director-candidates face the enormous task of connecting with a gigantic numerical and geographical body. Having just been through this process myself, I can assure you that the obstacle presented to potential candidates by the sheer size of the PEC membership should not be minimized. Imagine a candidate wants to send a postcard to members reminding them to vote. Conservatively, at $0.10 per mail piece, the cost for one mailing would be $25,000! And that doesn’t even take into consideration postage.   The question has naturally become how PEC can make the election process more manageable for candidates – we want good, qualified people to step forward if they feel the call of service and have talents that would benefit the co-op. They are more likely to do that if they feel they can mount a worthwhile campaign.

We, as a membership, attempted to address this very issue from one angle in the 2014 election through a referendum to change voting from at-large elections to single-member district elections.  (These two links will provide some background on this issue:  Blanco News and PEC 2014 election referendum release.) That referendum, however, did not pass, and members will continue to be called on to vote in each yearly election for every director on the ballot.

Another way to address the manageability issue of director campaigns is to develop a way for candidates to communicate specifically with the 8% or less of the membership that actually participates in the election process. It’s remarkable that with several weeks of online voting and mail-in voting; day-of in person voting; and several communications from the co-op leading up to the election; PEC still sees such a small voter turn out.   In conversations surrounding this problem, an idea recently surfaced to release a list to approved candidates (candidates that have been approved by the qualifications committee) of the members’ names and addresses who voted in the most recent election. It is important to note that the entire membership list is already attainable by anyone seeking to be listed on the ballot so that he or she may verify signatures on the member petitions required to become a candidate. As is the case in the current at-large membership list, co-op members would be able to opt-out of having their names and addresses listed on the recent voter list. Additionally, no information about whom a person voted for would be included on the list.

The way I see it, having this “recent voter list” available for approved candidates can only improve the election process. We give the interested members an opportunity to hear from their potential representatives so they might make more informed decisions, and we spare candidates from having to invest exorbitant amounts of money in order to communicate with them by narrowing the target audience. Someone asked me about a potential invasion of member privacy for those that don’t wish to be contacted, to which I pointed out three main things. 1) We are only releasing addresses, which we already do for the entire membership. This may mean you will receive some extra mail from candidates in May and June every year, but honestly, how many pieces of mail do you receive that you throw away every month anyways? If you don’t care about PEC elections, just chunk it!! 2) The chances that you will receive the mail pieces if you don’t participate in the PEC election process will be quite small since you won’t be on the recent voter list unless you voted in the 2014 elections. 3) I heard from several members following the election that they wish they had more contact from candidates so they could get a better sense of whom to support. If you do care about the director elections and want more information about the people that may represent you on the PEC board, you may now have better access to that information.

We first discussed this potential change at our August committee meeting, and we voted on it at our September regular board meeting. District 5 Director James Oakley, with my support, proposed a resolution to make a recent voter list available to qualified candidates. I seconded the resolution, and it passed with “yes” votes from Director Oakley, Director Perry, Director Scanlon, and myself. The “no” votes came from Director Clement, Director Landaker, and Dr. Cox (who later voted “yes” to the amended Election Policies and Procedures that included this new resolution).

This change will be enacted in the 2015 election cycle, and I believe it will greatly enhance the system we already have in place. It’s the first of many small steps in the right direction that I hope to see as a board member at our co-op.

UPDATE:

***This resolution will be rescinded at our next Board Meeting on October 20th.  A coordinated effort between the dissenting Directors and members concerned with privacy protections at our October 13th Committee meeting caused a shift in Board support for the Recent Voter Participation list.  We will have to go back to the drawing board to try and improve our election process, and I encourage all members to offer opinions on how we can best do that.***

“Refining PEC Processes:  Part 2” is due out later this week.