DANIEL CLIFTON • EDITOR
JOHNSON CITY — The world is now watching.
Those were the words of Reneé Semien, a Pedernales Electric Cooperative employee, to the PEC board of directors Nov. 30 in response to what many believe was a racist comment posted by District 5 director and board vice president James Oakley on his personal Facebook page. That post evoked a wide, and often emotional, response.
“There are plenty of voices in the company who did not want to speak because of fear of retaliation,” said Semien, who is black.
She told the board she was also fearful to speak to the directors on the matter but felt emboldened by others at the meeting who spoke before her.
Semien urged the board to take strong action against Oakley for his Facebook post because she and others believe Oakley has created a hostile workplace with his comment.
PEC officials called the emergency meeting after District 1 director Cristi Clement filed an official complaint against Oakley in regard to the social media post. The board, under its bylaws amended earlier in November, formed a three-person committee consisting of directors Emily Pataki, Kathryn Scanlon, and Paul Graf to investigate the complaint.
The committee has until Friday, Dec. 9, to report its findings to the entire board. The PEC board has several options — if it decides to take any action — including removing Oakley as a director.
On Nov. 21, Oakley posted “Time for a tree and a rope” in reference to San Antonio Police Department announcing on its Facebook page the arrest of Otis Tyrone McKane, who is African-American, for the murder of SAPD detective Benjamin Marconi a few days earlier.
Oakley, who is also the Burnet County Commissioners Court judge, set off a firestorm with the post. He deleted the comment Nov. 22 when he said he realized others were offended by it.
But the comment caught the eye of many people through widespread media coverage.
During the Nov. 30 meeting, Oakley reiterated the intent of his post and his apology.
“When I learned of the weekend shooting of the officer, I was disheartened,” he said. “In a moment of frustration, I posted the comment ‘Time for a tree and a rope.’”
Oakley explained he wasn’t calling for vigilantism to skip the criminal justice process, but “due process is an assumption in my mind.” He told those in attendance at the meeting he was expressing his view that a person convicted of murdering a police officer should face the death penalty.
“My reaction to the arrest would have been the same had there not been a mugshot or a description,” Oakley said. “My reference to ‘a tree and rope’ could have easily been voiced a different way.”
However, for many in the 200-plus crowd gathered in the PEC headquarters in Johnson City, Oakley’s apology and explanation rang hollow.
Gerry Singleton, a PEC manager with 15 years in the cooperative, told the directors he didn’t like Oakley, but “I love him.” Still, Singleton, who is black, said Oakley’s post has changed PEC’s climate for employees.
“A hostile work environment has been created because of those few words,” he said.
Singleton went on to say that several other PEC employees wanted to speak before the board but were fearful to do so.
“(Board president) Miss Pataki and the members of the board, I’m scared, but not for me. I’m scared for you,” Singleton said. “I’ve done what I should do as a manager here at Pedernales Electric Cooperative. I’ve waved the flag. I’ve sounded the alarm for those too scared to come here and let you know how they feel.”
Others found a way to forgive Oakley.
Calvin Richard, a Burnet County resident and business owner, said nothing he knew about Oakley would lead him to believe the man is a racist as others described him based on the Facebook comment. The two met for several hours after the Nov. 21 post. Richard said he came away from the meeting with the belief Oakley’s intent wasn’t racist and that he forgave him.
“I believe the statement Judge Oakley used was a horrible statement. It definitely has racial implications. I think we all see that,” said Richard, who is black. “However, in the moment it was typed and posted, can anyone here say with 100 percent they know the intentions of James Oakley’s heart?”
Richard also pointed out that after a March 2015 cross burning at the entrance of the Smoking for Jesus Ministry church in Hoover’s Valley in Burnet County, not more than 200 feet from his own front door, nobody held a community meeting to discuss the incident such as the one that came about after Oakley’s seven words. He added that no one has been arrested or charged for the cross burning.
“It’s kind of funny which fight we chose,” Richard said. “I’m personally here in the spirit of forgiveness, reconciliation, increased education on race relations, and helming for racially divided communities.”
A.B. Walters stood up on Oakley’s behalf as well.
“There’s not a racist bone in that man’s body,” Walters said. He also addressed some of the people critical of Oakley. “You’re just up here making trouble.”
Walters added, “He wasn’t talking about a lynching. He was talking about good West Texas justice.”
Those words stirred up several in the crowd.
Elizabeth Walters talked about Oakley as a caring person. She described him as a consummate public servant. And she shared how he stood so caringly and steadfastly by his wife’s side when she was battling cancer.
“His heart is for all people,” Walters said.
Mike Brennan took the PEC board and others to task for what he saw as a violation of Oakley’s freedom of speech. He pointed out that the director made the post on his personal Facebook page with no mention of the cooperative.
“What business is this of PEC?” Brennan asked.
He also attacked the idea that Oakley’s words were anything other than what the director stated was his intent: to show relief at the capture of a man suspected of murdering a police officer. Others, Brennan said, just seized on the term “lynching” and created a much more nefarious picture.
“It has nothing to do with racism,” he said, regarding Oakley’s post.
He added that everyone has become overly sensitive to words and so easily offended that it’s like walking on eggshells.
“This room is like a chicken coop with all the broken eggshells,” Brennan said in a raised voice. “This country wasn’t built on eggshells.”
For Thomas Mitchell, who described himself as a conservative Republican for 50 years and an experienced business leader, it was simple. It didn’t matter if Oakley’s comments were on his personal Facebook page because the moment a person takes a role as a director of an organization such as PEC, he or she is always a representative of that organization.
“If a director of a U.S. corporation made a comment like this, he wouldn’t last a day,” Mitchell said. “Mr. Oakley should resign immediately.”
Oakley was elected to the PEC board of directors in 2013. He served as board president in 2015. After his re-election to the board in May 2016, he was selected by the board as vice president. As a member of the board of directors, Oakley gets a $3,000 monthly stipend from PEC, as do all other directors. Along with serving on the PEC board, Oakley is the Burnet County Commissioners Court judge, an administrative position with no judicial powers or role.
Oakley also serves on the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement. During his statement at the start of the Nov. 30 board meeting, Oakley told the audience he was hurt by the murder of Marconi and the other recent law enforcement slayings.
“I’m very connected with law enforcement, and I’ve taken a bit of a protective role there,” he said.
But one former Dallas police officer took Oakley to task on how his “time for a tree and a rope” statement affected law enforcement officers. Marina Hoy, who served with the Dallas Police Department from 1973-1980 and is currently a law enforcement trainer, told Oakley his Facebook post, which she described as racist, could actually spur more aggressive behavior toward law enforcement.
“What you have done by encouraging violence … it has put a target on (law enforcement officers’) backs, and that’s unfortunate,” Hoy said. “You have made their job more seriously dangerous by doing so.
“Mr. Oakley, I think you’ve shown us who you are.”
Of the 23 people who spoke during the public comment period, 14 spoke in favor of removing Oakley from the board while nine defended the director.
The board, once it hears the results of the three-person committee’s investigation, can do a number of things, according to PEC bylaws. Those actions include: a verbal warning; a written reprimand; censure; a reduction of director privileges or compensation; or removal. For removal, the board must decide so by a vote of at least two-thirds of the non-affected remaining directors. If the board decides to call for a vote on his removal, it would take place no earlier than Jan. 17, 2017.
Oakley, during his statement at the start of the meeting, admitted the words he posted were hurtful to many people, but that was never his intent.
“I’m asking for your humble forgiveness … It was a mistake on my part that I own,” he said.
But as Reneé Semien stood at podium, fighting back tears as she spoke for herself and others, it became clear that, despite Oakley’s apology, she didn’t want him to remain on the board of directors.
“Director Oakley felt that it was appropriate to call for the lynching of a black man accused of a crime. For those ignorant of United States history, black men were lynched to instill fear and compliance in the black population for centuries,” Semien said. As she continued, several African-American employees of PEC and others in attendance gathered around her while some people stood up in the audience. “This is a human decency issue. Black employees should not and are not the only ones who have a problem with what Director Oakley did. It is not acceptable and should not be tolerated.”
Go to pec.coop to check on future PEC board meetings. PEC serves 240,370 members over a multi-county area in Central Texas and has more than 275 employees.