CONNIE SWINNEY • STAFF WRITER
JOHNSON CITY — A stark contrast has emerged within the contested race for the Pedernales Electric Cooperative board of directors on how members vote, whether to shutter facilities and the proposed criteria for serving on the board.
In District 5, incumbent board president James Oakley of Spicewoood faces challenger Carlos Palasciano of Austin.
The challenger supports the current system of voting among all cooperative members.
“I am totally in favor of at-large districts. I believe the board members should be making decisions for all of the PEC members, not just the ones that might be in my district,” Palisciano said. “It could trigger a district conflict of interest in that, as a director, I‘m going to be fighting and wanting things for that one district regardless of whether that is beneficial for the entire PEC or not. And I feel, as a board member, I am responsible to make executive decisions that impact all PEC members.”
PEC currently utilizes an at-large voting system that allows the entire membership to vote on a candidate who is running for election within a specific geographic district.
On the other hand, an alternative single-member district voting system would resemble how county or state government elections function by only allowing residents within a specific geographic district to vote for the candidates who reside in that district.
“Population matters, when you have the will of the urban vote overpower the will of the rural vote. That’s what’s currently in play,” said Oakley, referring to the potential of centers of larger populations having more influence on who is elected to the board. “This has nothing to do with what you represent. It has everything to do with how you get elected.”
The PEC region encompasses 8,100 square-miles throughout 24 counties divided into seven districts.
Another topic that differentiates the candidates is whether facilities in various communities should remain open.
Palasciano referred to what he termed the “Bertram fiasco” in which the community in 2015 received word that PEC administration might be considering a proposal to “compress” the facility.
Some interpreted that to mean closure instead of combining staff duties among nearby offices and re-allocating some resources to other facilities.
“That was voted (on). The individual who is the board president (Oakley), who is also the sitting judge of Burnet County over Bertram, chose to keep it open,” Palasciano said. “That is a conflict of interest. He did a great job for the Burnet County citizens, but it’s a terrible price for the PEC member-owners and the rest of the PEC network to continue to pay for that office to remain office.
“PEC needs to modernize, and one of the ways to modernize and enhance efficiencies is to close unprofitable locations,” he added. “They function like the old Sears catalog centers. Today, you can pay your utilities at a grocery, bank. There are many ways to streamline an operation and save.”
Oakley contended “rumors” led to misinformation about the fate of the Bertram office.
“We voted to close several locations, but not Bertram. I believe the Bertram location, while we’re looking at lots of consolidations within the PEC footprint, the footprint in Bertram is necessary. It’s more of an outpost for a future growth arena,” Oakley said. “As Austin continues to grow northwest through Liberty Hill and the Seward-Junction area, while it is not as busy as some of the other districts today with the growth trends, it will provide a vital aspect in the operations in the future.”
The challenger expressed concern about Oakley’s dual role.
“The concern is not to have an individual with two political salaries serving on the PEC board,” Palasciano said.
Oakley countered: “It is vetted. It’s not unprecedented. There are other co-ops within Texas where you have people who sit on school boards, city councils, water districts, that are elected officials in a taxing entity, and that’s all that is in play here.”
Oakley also pointed to strides made at the utility during his tenure.
Among them, the cooperative reduced monthly rates by 14 percent during the past two years; limited board meetings to save cost of stipends received by board members; restructured debt to save $15.3 million in interest payments; and adopted a new operating platform to save $5 million per year.
“I think voters should look at the track record,” Oakley said.
Palasciano criticized what he perceived to be a “dysfunctional” board and credited the market for the utility cost decreases.
“Prices have dropped. Yes, it’s good. PEC has lower prices as a result in the drop in the cost of those commodities (coal and natural gas),” Palasciano said, “as it has also dropped for everyone else in the state. That has been positive for every electric company statewide.”
In District 4, Jim Powers of Dripping Springs, an entrepreneur, is running uncontested. Incumbent Chris Perry, who was elected in June 2010, did not file to run.
The election is during the annual meeting June 18 in Dripping Springs, where PEC members can vote in person.
For early voting, PEC members can do so by mail or online. For more information and a link to the online ballot, go to pec.coop/election.