Valley Electric Association officials recently chafed at suggestions that the cooperative is less than forthcoming about its operations.
This newspaper in particular has been on the receiving end of management’s ire over the subject — mostly because covering the co-op in any meaningful way requires asking hard questions and getting straight answers that managers seem strangely reluctant to give.
One example: A multi-million dollar facility is slated to be built at the co-op’s Pahrump campus in a matter of months, yet the price tag for the new facility as well as renovations to existing buildings continues to elude the public, though to be sure VEA ratepayers will be footing the bill and have a real interest in how much this project is costing them.
And now the cooperative’s board is being asked to mull a policy change that may in fact reduce the ability of news media from covering the cooperative even further.
The item came up for discussion during VEA’s regular board of directors meeting on Friday. VEA CEO Tom Husted, in describing the suggested policy, appeared to be telling board members that they could use it to censor the press, and even stymie co-op members who wish to attend meetings and then discuss what was said to the media.
“If the board of directors determines any member who attends or wishes to attend a regular or special meeting should be primarily interested in using association information obtained at such a meeting in a manner the board determines to be adverse to the best interests of the association, which may include the intent to publish the association’s information in any public forum or media outlet, the board of directors may deny that member access to the meeting or the alternative, the board may require the member to agree not to use the information received in a manner adverse to the association prior to that member’s entry to the meeting,” he said.
Husted framed his remarks on not just the need to protect sensitive co-op information, but also the need to be able to move meetings smoothly along. He addressed, for example, public comment at the meetings as well.
“If we were going through our board meeting financials and you had 30 people with questions, it would really lengthen the board meeting and make it very disjointed. We usually have a small enough crowd and this board has been a little relaxed on that and has allowed questions from members as we go through the meeting. Obviously, those rules would have to be tightened if you had a hundred people in here for every board meeting,” he said.
VEA typically provides lengthy summaries of its financial picture at every board of directors meeting, and did so again Friday. Media requests for copies of those reports, however, are routinely denied this newspaper for less than clear reasons, particularly since the figures are stated openly during a public forum that can ostensibly be attended by anyone.
Still, Husted seemed to want to portray to board members that his suggestions for the new policy were not meant to make VEA’s operations less transparent, though he continued to single out the role of the press.
“The genesis for this is that we want to be as open and transparent as we possibly can. We have members here today who have taken the time to be an active participant in the company they own and we respect that. We also believe that our members should be allowed to participate in and hear the actions of their cooperative, but at the same time we have a legal responsibility to this company and we may have actions that are taking place and we would love for our members to know what those business plans are and what those actions are. But when we have a member who is here not only as a member but is a member who owns maybe a communications company and they are doing the part of their job and they are communicating not only to our members but to the entire world,” he said, “the entire world is not always in unison and friendly to Valley Electric and is a competitor.”
Not every board member seemed to be on board with what Husted was suggesting.
Dave Lowe, district 5 director, was one of them. He said the board, like it or not, is a quasi-government body and that facts should flow freely for better decision making, if nothing else. He compared the policy changes being discussed with something more akin to Eastern Bloc, Cold War style communist doctrine.
“The danger that we get into is that you want to proofread the reporter’s piece and that would be one way to do it and that is just the thing we have tried to avoid with the idea of a free press. All of the members need protection and that includes everyone in this room, not just certain members. I think that this prudence of ensuring that only the party line gets out is very dangerous. We have seen that happen before in this country 200 years ago. But also in other countries even today, especially in the Iron Curtain. They had very accurate reporting according to the leadership,”he said.
Lowe added that he thought being too extreme with local media members would also not be a good image for the cooperative to cultivate with the public.
“I don’t want to do anything that makes us appear that we are the villains. In this case, my attitude is that the members of the press who are also members of Valley Electric are not coming in here to sabotage Valley Electric, it’s their own company, why would they?”
Husted agreed that the cooperative was in a tough spot.
“That is a tough quandary. We have to be very mindful of that, but we also want to be very respectful to our members, which may own or work for a company that is communicating on a larger scale beyond our membership. We have a fiduciary responsibility to protect this company. We also have a responsibility to serve the best interests of the members. We do not have a fiduciary responsibility to act on the best behalf of the member’s (media) company,” he told the board.
The CEO also pointed out multiple times that the policy discussion was just that, a discussion, and that no action would be taken until something more concrete was brought back to the board for a vote.