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JOHNSON CITY — Pedernales Electric Cooperative directors say they have a long road ahead to regain the trust of members stung by more than 30 years of what some called “autocratic” rule. That announcement came on the heels of a nine-month survey released Monday, which revealed that just half of the co-op’s membership view PEC as “trustworthy.”

The study, conducted by Austin-based Somerset Guild, showed that 21 percent of respondents view PEC as untrustworthy, while the remainder were neutral or didn’t know.

PEC Board Vice President Cristi Clement said the study shows where improvements are needed — especially when it comes to building members’ trust once again.

“What we need now are our areas of weakness,” she said. “We can focus on those areas and expand on what we need to do rebuild.”

The $250,000 study was commissioned to give PEC leaders a look inside what members think of the co-op, according to General Manager Juan Garza.

“We conducted this research to learn the true perceptions of PEC from members and stakeholders,” Garza said. “We have chosen the road of open communication, so this information was presented in open session of our board meeting.”

There was some good news in the data — 77 percent of co-op members were “satisfied” or “very satisfied” with PEC’s service, while 84 percent of co-op employees stated they are “proud to be part of the PEC organization.”

Even so, Clement said the middling score on trustworthiness indicates damage left by previous PEC leaders.

The co-op until 2008 was run by former General Manager Bennie Fuelberg, who left office amid allegations of wrongdoing including money laundering and theft. Fuelberg and former PEC attorney Walter Demond were indicted in June 2009 on charges of money laundering, breach of fiduciary duty and theft by a Blanco County grand jury. Both are awaiting trial.

The board itself, under Fuelberg, was accused of accepting inflated salaries for little work while restricting fair elections and member input.

“I think (the survey) more clearly reflects the impact of autocratic rule,” Clement said. “I think there’s damage there, and we know that. The lack of trust has been well-earned by the leadership.”

Since Fuelberg’s departure, Clement said the co-op has worked overtime to restore its image, primarily through openness.

“There’s a lot more that we need to do on just building trust,” she said. “When we say open, we really mean open. Sometimes there’s the good, the bad and the ugly, but putting it out there is more honest than erring on the side of being closed.”

Now that the data have been collected, Garza said the co-op will focus on improving relations with members and employees.

“We’re already working on initiatives to address concerns raised in the report,” he said. “I’m visiting each office and inviting every employee to further discuss any issues or ideas they have to move the cooperative forward.”

PEC, at more than 220,000 member-owners, is the nation’s largest  member-owned electric cooperative. It was formed more than 70 years ago under the purview of former President Lyndon Johnson.

Meanwhile, during Monday’s board meeting, directors agreed to put a members’ bill of rights before consumers for a vote during a June general meeting, but failed to approve  an overhaul of the utility’s bylaws.