Herndon:SMPA’s Can of Worms | Dateline Wright’s Mesa
by Grace Herndon
Sep 16, 2007 | 572 views | 0 0 comments | 9 9 recommendations | email to a friend | print
For decades, hard-hitting movies have been made about irate citizens who “hate city hall” or their bosses and they’re “mad as hell” and “won’t take it anymore.” But most of us don’t get too worked up about our power company – or the phone company. Until one of these rather tiresome and plodding public utilities manages to greatly offend us.

But in recent months, the San Miguel Power Association’s board of directors has managed to raise our hackles over a whole series of events that many of its “owner-consumers” see as running from careless blunders to outright insults. As a longtime regional reporter, it’s fallen to my lot to pay attention to the electric power outfits that are the producers and distributors of this stuff. Like much of the rural west, SMPA is part of the federally subsidized Rural Electrification Administration, as is Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association, which supplied power wholesale to SMPA and some 43 other local REA cooperatives.

Yeah, this is pretty dry stuff, but hang in. Last month, some unknown person, via email, aired some very dirty linen about goings on within San Miguel Power. Sexual discrimination, harassment, booze, and other very questionable behavior on the part of SMPA’s recently dumped general manager, Bobby Blair. Once a can of worms is publicly cracked open, other people figure its time to speak up, as well. Newspaper and other media offices begin to get tips, confirmations and the like. Note, for example, the recent downfall of Idaho’s Senator Larry Craig.

But smut aside, the arrogance and close-mindedness of some REA leaders isn’t new. In fact, I’ve concluded that it’s built into the system. SMPA consumers were shocked when association directors declined to allow consumers to have a voice in selecting a new general manager. Directors now also decline to make public the salaries paid to its top administrators. At issue was a six-month severance package paid to the now departed Blair, whose abrupt dismissal was never explained.

Rewind now to the 1980s. The Montrose-based Colorado-Ute Electric Association is a swaggering, politically powerful, empire-building REA that generates and sells power wholesale to some 14 small co-ops, including San Miguel Power. Colorado-Ute is both feared and grudgingly respected for the way it has risen from one little power plant near Nucla, to a coal-eating giant with some of Colorado’s biggest electric power generation plants, huge power transmission lines and ambitions to keep on building.

A scene from somewhere during that time is etched in my mind. Colorado-Ute General Manager Girts Krumins and perhaps six attorneys are meeting with San Miguel County Commissioners, pushing for a county special use permit to build a monstrous 345 KV transmission line across major swaths of this county and the length of western Colorado. Krumins is a big man, with sandy colored hair and a florid face. Like some powerful mafia don, he’s come to do business. He brushes aside the idea that this county has land use regulations.

Krumins isn’t accustomed to being put off. As he and what one observer called his “fleet of attorneys” are leaving, Krumins turns and tells commissioners it’s time to forget those regulations and get together and make a deal. Colorado-Ute eventually got its way, for a slightly altered transmission line, which you can see today crossing San Miguel Canyon a few miles south of the Norwood Bridge.

Fast forward to 1989. One of Ute’s co-op member managers warns me that Ute is in serious financial trouble. I write about this. One member of Colorado-Ute’s board of directors, who represents SMPA on that board, scolds me for writing news stories that raise questions about Ute’s financial stability. He says, “We have lots of lines of credit.” Soon state newspapers run stories with headlines that say: “Colorado-Ute acknowledges $1.1 billion debt.” But Ute tells its member co-ops not to worry, the company has “a work-out plan.”

But by that summer, Ute is forced into Chapter 11 bankruptcy when its creditors refuse to accept Ute’s payback plan. Colorado-Ute’s opulent kiva-like board meeting room was a round, lushly carpeted affair with board members seated at desks on raised, circular tiers. These, in turn, focused on a lower, central podium-like circle where Krumins and other staffers held forth. I’ve always wondered who shut off the lights and closed the door on that once powerful place.

In 1992, the Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association took over Ute’s assets and, in time, its member co-ops, creating a giant new rural utility with 44 member co-ops and ambitions to match. The Delta-Montrose Electric Association, along with San Miguel Power, is one of those member co-ops. This year, DMEA was the lone co-op member who declined to sign a contract extension to 2050 with Tri-State to help finance new coal-fired power plants. DMEA Boardmember Ed Marston has, as I do, clear memories of the Colorado-Ute bravado and its final meltdown. Marston acknowledges that DMEA is “different” – a maverick in the new bureaucratic, neo-Wall Street, rural electric culture. Marston says DMEA has an “outstanding general manager who believes in the co-op and its (democratic) ideals.”

DMEA board members are “very supportive” of General Manager Dan McClennon and his business and leadership ethics. “Our books are open,” Marston tells me. SMPA Board President Gary Yamnitz says although SMPA “is not actually a public entity” and management salaries have “never been released,” the co-op’s other financial records are open. Managers’ salaries are a new “issue,” Yamnitz says, allowing that board members might consider opening up that information, as well.

Yamnitz believes a private investigation into alleged discrimination, smutty emails and on-the-job booze clears SMPA of most of those charges. Like SMPA spokesman Bill Green, Yamnitz hopes the public will suspend judgment until possible court action brings out the “truth.” Some 15 years ago, Colorado-Ute’s member co-ops and their consumers were blindsided when Colorado-Ute abruptly crashed. At San Miguel Power, “owner-consumers” are increasingly puzzled and unhappy about the utility’s “see no evil” atmosphere. It’s tough to keep the lid on, once the can of worms begins to see daylight.

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