There has never been any love lost between Ernest Altgelt and the PEC board over the years. I have had more than a few tangles with Mr. Altgelt myself. During the two years I was board president, I remember him accusing the board of being the “Enron of the Hill Country”. My response to him was pointed and heated. He was rude in his comments toward Patrick Cox, who was the board president until last June, often demanding that he resign or belittling his well-earned PhD. Occasionally Altgelt goes too far as when he had inappropriate interactions with staff members–something which had to be stopped. He seldom speaks about matters germane to the day’s business, choosing instead to address his own subjects. Occasionally he is right as he was when he demanded the travel expenses for every board member. Members have the right to know these things. Mr. Altgelt is a gadfly and an oddball…but he occasionally offers a nugget of truth. Above all else, he has every right to speak.
Free speech is a very big deal with me. I will travel some distance to fight for someone who has been publicly silenced by a heavy hand. Mr. Altgelt was silenced yesterday in a PEC board meeting by an overzealous board president, James Oakley. Mr. Oakley ordered Mr. Altgelt’s microphone muted when he disagreed with what Mr. Altgelt had to say. When that didn’t work, Mr. Oakley ordered an armed security officer to remove Altgelt from the meeting. Altgelt extended his hands to the officer and asked to be tased and handcuffed in protest. This ridiculous, Kafkaesque scene played out in full view and on camera during the member comments section of the meeting.
(Note: The security officer was Johnson City Police Chief Randy Holland who handled the situation with skill and great restraint, gently speaking with Altgelt and nudging him toward the door. It was a model of good policing).
Prior to member comments Mr. Oakley took the occasion to lecture the members present about his new rules. He declared that he had unilaterally changed the rules of decorum (which were unanimously passed by the Board several years ago and which have served us perfectly well ever since). Mr. Oakley inferred that member comments were somehow a privilege granted by the chairman, that they could be taken away at any time, that comments had to be germane to the topics of the day, etc etc. In essence he was saying, “If I don’t like what I hear I will cut off your mic.”. This authoritarian rubbish is unacceptable. It should not be tolerated by the members who fought hard for the unfettered right to speak. It was the Fuelberg regime which conducted its business without public comment or even meeting access. A revolt of the members ensued over this and many other matters and eventually the members filed a successful class action lawsuit against the Cooperative and won.
Mr. Oakley should be reminded that when he is presiding over a PEC meeting, he is not in commissioner’s court in Burnet county where he is apparently the grand poo-bah who gets to make his own rules. Until 7 years ago, PEC was a secretive, lawless enterprise with rules known only to those who ran it. When it comes to limiting free speech, Mr. Oakley should tread lightly. He either believes in constitutionally protected free speech or he doesn’t. Telling people what they can or cannot say or how they say it invites big trouble. He should tell members that they have 3 minutes to speak and then let them have at it. Mr. Oakley should know of the futility of prior restraint when it comes to free speech in the United States.
Mr. Oakley should have known better than to fall into Mr. Altgelt’s trap. He surely has enough experience to understand that you never win such encounters–the optics of the police being called to remove a citizen for heckling or speaking his mind often results in sympathy for the protester. Citizens take sides with their fellow citizens. Censoring him censors me. YouTube is full of these things.
Besides, it is naive for President Oakley or anyone else to believe that he can truly stifle speech critical of him. We live in a social media world with blogs, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, etc. These are the great equalizer. For example, when I publish this blog, it will automatically post to my Twitter, Facebook and Linkedin accounts with thousands of followers, many of them PEC members. By pushing another button I could link this story to an email blast to over 7,000 PEC members I have gathered over the years…and it all can be seen worldwide by anyone with one of these accounts and Mr. Oakley has no say in what I say. Censorship and control of free speech is quite yesterday.
By contract how many people watch the live streaming of the PEC meetings? 50? How many people attend the meetings–a dozen?
Come on James Oakley, get a thicker skin. You are better than this. A leader’s strength and power is derived from his patience and restraint, not bombast and heavy handedness. I am pulling for you to be the former, not the latter. I like you and want you to do well, if for no other reason than I revere the cooperative.
In the end it is always better to let people speak, even those you do not like. Let them say what is on their mind, even if they choose to read recipes from a book. As a board member I always learned far more from our members than I ever learned from almost anyone else in the room.