Charter change passes unanimously, 3 resign from LES board
A unanimous vote to amend Lexington’s city charter and the resignation of three LES power board members at last night’s regular monthly meeting of the board of mayor and aldermen would seem to bring a close to nearly three weeks of political drama. Late last month Lexington Mayor Bobby Dyer asked the city board to consider an amendment to the city’s charter that would remove much of the autonomy of the independent board set up to operate the Lexington Electric System three years ago. “This independent board was and continues to be a tremendous help,” Dyer told city board members, “but we have now come to realize that by setting the independent board up as prescribed by state law, we gave total control of LES to the independent board.” Dyer went on to say that he believed the city’s elected representatives were ultimately responsible for the actions of the LES board and that some sort of “oversight” was needed. “If it [the power board] decided to raise rates, increase charges, give huge salary increases or whatever, it could do so without even letting the city board know,” Dyer said, “and even if we did know, there is nothing we could do to stop it. This is not right for the City of Lexington and the people that we, as elected officials, represent.” “It is the board of alderman and mayor that should ultimately be responsible to the voters and customers of the electric system since the electric system is totally owned by the City of Lexington.” Dyer’s proposed charter changes gave the city board final say in any rate or fee increases, power to appoint the system manager and final approval of all budgets and other fiscal matters concerning the system. Alderman Jeff Griggs proposed one amendment, requiring that the wording of the charter change be amended to include the board of aldermen, along with the mayor. That board voted 6-1 in favor of adopting the charter change. Alderman Frankie Stanfill voted no. Following the vote, several aldermen spoke assuring LES employees, power board members and the audience that the city board had no intention of removing or firing anyone. Each just felt the city board needed some oversight power concerning the public utility. Less than a week later, Dyer called a special called meeting of the board of mayor and aldermen concerning the agenda of a called meeting of the LES board. Dyer told board members that he had received notice of a called meeting set for 7:45 the next morning to consider separation agreements and severance packages for LES’s two top officers, Manager Matt Ujcich and Assistant Manager Jimmy Stanfill. “This came as a total surprise to me because I had no idea that Matt and Jimmy wanted to quit their jobs,” Dyer said, “and I know this board made it very clear last week at our called meeting that we didn’t want to fire anyone.” Dyer went on to say that he was “shocked” by the severance packages being requested by both men. “If these agreements were approved it could be extremely harmful to Lexington Electric and the City of Lexington from both a financial standpoint and a liability standpoint,” Dyer said. Dyer also noted that the LES board called the meeting just days after the the city board voted to regain oversight of LES. “All this took place with total disregard to the action taken by the city board just four days earlier, to have oversight of the electric system. This proposed action is not for the benefit of the City of Lexington...,” Dyer said. “This further supports the belief of this city board that it needs oversight of the electric board.” Following an attorney-client meeting, the city board sought an injunction to prevent the proposed action by the LES board. The city was unsuccessful in obtaining that injunction and the next morning the LES board voted 3-2 in favor of accepting both Ujcich’s and Stanfill’s separation agreements and severance packages totaling more than $200,000. At last night’s meeting, things soon became heated despite the unanimous vote to ratify the charter changes and give the city board oversight and final say in much of the business conducted by the LES board. Following the vote to ratify the charter changes, Dyer asked if the board had any desire to take any action concerning the current LES board appointments. Alderman and LES board member Emmitt Blankenship asked that former mayor Bennie Scott be appointed to serve on the LES board in place of Matt Ujcich’s father, Mike Ujcich. Alderman Jeff Griggs said he felt the electric system should be run entirely by elected officials, because that is what voters have told him they wanted, and that all of the independent board members should be removed, rendering the LES board inoperable. Alderman Frankie Stanfill said he wasn’t sure the individual aldermen had the time necessary to devote to taking on total control of the electric system without at least an advisory board. LES board member Don McLamb asked to address the board. McLamb told the board there was no need for them to go through the process of removing him from or reappointing him to the LES board. “You don’t have to go through that,” McLamb said. “I’m ready to resign.” LES Board chairman Margaret Milam and Ujcich echoed McLamb’s statement. Griggs noted that the three resignations rendered the LES board inoperable for lack of a quorum, leaving the city board in total control of the utility. Griggs’ motion to leave the LES board inoperable failed. Stanfill said he was “amazed” by the unfolding of events. “It amazes me that we sit here and we say we’re going to run something like a business. Then we say we’ve got to do what voters want so we can get re-elected,” Stanfill said. “If we want to run it like a business, let’s do it. If we want to play politics, let’s call it what it is. If people don’t like the decisions I make, they’ll get a ticket up and run against me. And I’ll make my house payment next month whether I’m an alderman or not.” The board voted 4-3 in favor of appointing Scott to the LES board. Aldermen Sandra Wood, John Casselberry and Griggs voted against. The addition of Scott gave the five-member board a quorum and made it an operable board. Alderman Peggy Gilbert then moved that Fred Ellis also be added to the board. Her motion passed by the same vote. No other motions were made, nor was any action taken concerning the LES board’s remaining vacant seat.
EDITORIAL: Is it really a power struggle? And even if it is, is that wrong?
What in the world? I’m out of pocket for a few weeks and everything decides to happen at once?! I’m not even sure where to start. Jeesh! I trust most of you have been keeping up with the “Power Struggle” between the city and the independent board set up to operate the Lexington Electric System. If not, I’ve provided a pretty thorough recap. First, I want to say that originally I thought the independent board was a good idea. But somebody was saying something similar about using hydrogen filled airships as a means of mass transit as the Hindenburg came in for a landing, too. Did you know that under the independent board, during the 2008-2009 fiscal year, LES’s operating expenses increased about 8 percent, while the operating expenses of Lexington’s two other public utilities increased only about 1 percent? Now maybe there’s a really good reason for that. I don’t know the particulars there, but I know that part of the reason for creating that board was to get rapid increases in LES spending more under control than it had been under previous administrations, without political maneuvering and infighting. And given the move by this same independent board to thumb its nose at the will of the city board and not only separate the utility’s top two officers but pay them some $200,000 (remember, that money came out of your electric bill), I’d have to say that the idea of an independent board was much better than the reality of the same. But I do think it had to be tried, if for no other reason than just to find out why it wouldn’t work. What really concerns me though, is this. What did it really matter to the LES board if the city had oversight of its actions? This whole ordeal has been termed a “power struggle,” but only one group has ever actually had the power, the city board. The city board set up the power board. The city board has the power to abolish the power board. And the power board members serve voluntarily and, supposedly, in the interest of the true owners of the utility, the citizens of Lexington. So I’m thinking, if I were on the power board and the city board that created my position decided it wanted to keep a closer eye on what I was doing, what would it matter? I’m also thinking, if I was volunteering dozens of hours of my time a month, and the entity I was volunteering them to wanted to know what I was doing, how could I blame them? And why would I throw a fit about it if I didn’t like it? Would I really fight to be allowed to volunteer time I could be spending with friends and family? Lastly, I’m wondering how any of the members who resigned last night would feel if the roles were reversed. Let’s say I owned a company and it had my name on the storefront. Now let’s say, for whatever reason, I asked a friend to oversee the operation of my company for a while. And, let’s say that goes well for a while, but eventually I decide I’m not crazy about the direction that fella is taking my company. Remember, my name is on the business and I own it completely. And I go to him and I say, “hey buddy, I really appreciate everything you’ve been doing. But I think I need to take a little more of an active role in deciding where this company is going. Nothing personal, I just want to be sure we’re running as efficiently as we can and that we’re meeting our customer’s expectations,” or something like that. It is my company. Does he really have any right to throw a fit? Does he have the right to leave that meeting and write big checks to my top two managers and walk out the door with them? Or wouldn’t that just prove I was probably right in wanting to keep a closer eye on things? And if it is my company, would that really be a power struggle? Or just good sense on my part?