For whom does the bell toll? It tolls for we. It tolls for we the members. Whether ours is to be a cooperative that embraces free speech and democratic values or one that succumbs to the arbitrary whims of future boards or board presidents shall be determined by the tenacity and voice of the members. Except for one board member, Director Clement, the remaining board sat in stony silence on August 18 as Mr. Oakley essentially declared that he was the new Sheriff in town, empowered himself to change board policy and deem a member ineligible to speak.
A special called meeting notice of the PEC board of directors was issued today by the board president for 10am Monday, August 31 in the PEC board room in Johnson City. Member comments are on the agenda.
Sanitized though the agenda may appear, this meeting is about free speech at PEC. It is also about the limits of power granted to the board president. The meeting was demanded by at least four board members, alarmed by recent actions and statements by Mr. Oakley only two months into his tenure as board president. Under PEC bylaws, any four members are empowered to call a board meeting although such actions are rare. Among the items the board will review include the silencing of a member, Ernest Altgelt, who attempted to speak during the “member comments” portion of the August board meeting. Altgelt’s microphone was cut off by Mr. Oakley after uttering only a couple of sentences. He was then escorted from the room by a PEC security officer (see The Tale of Two Tapes, August 20, 2015…)
Perhaps the board will use this occasion to redeem itself. In hindsight, many members, including some board members, found the member comments episode to be a premeditated act of prior restraint aimed by Mr. Oakley at Mr. Altgelt’s right to speak. Oakley acknowledged as much in a letter he wrote to Milton Hawkins, saying, “Thanks for your comment. What you may not realize is that I have already heard the story he was telling, and I knew what the next sentence was going to be. Out of respect for the parties involved, I was not going to let that next sentiment occur.”
As a result of this incident, Mr. Oakley is under fire by some members for the shoddy treatment given to a fellow member as well as the unilateral manner in which Mr. Oakley changed a longstanding policy called, Decorum Policy, first enacted by the board in March, 2010. Some members see a predilection on the part of Mr. Oakley to exceed his authority.
Prior to the August meeting, Mr. Oakley and the cooperative’s outside General Counsel tinkered with the Rules of Decorum by adding language to a sign-in sheet that required members to speak “on matters that relate directly to a matter on the published agenda for the meeting” and that “speakers must stay within the bounds of appropriate personal conduct and respect for others as deemed by the board president”. Members who wished to speak were then required to sign the sheet essentially acknowledging agreement with the policy.
In defense of his actions published elsewhere, Mr. Oakley makes a habit of using the verb, “enact”, as if he were a one man legislature, observed Milton Hawkins.
This fiddling with the rules was clearly aimed at giving the board president added power to mute speech that he disliked or disagreed with. This policy change occurred without the knowledge or approval of the board. During a stern lecture to members prior to member comments, the changes were announced by Mr. Oakley as a fait accompli.
In these comments, Mr. Oakley opined, apparently in cahoots with the outside General counsel, that speaking by members before the board was “discretionary”, a “privilege”, “not a right”…under state or federal law or cooperative bylaws”. Lawyers can argue things square or round and while there may be no constitutional First Amendment right to speak at corporate meetings and since this is not a governmental entity etc. etc., questions clearly remain. Is democratic member control not a basic “cooperative principle”? Do board policies not have to take that into account? Might PEC not otherwise be breaching a contractual duty to “operate PEC on a cooperative nonprofit basis” found in our bylaws? Have cooperative bylaws not been held to be a contract between the co-op and its members?
Beyond all that, wouldn’t board members simply want to know what is on the mind of the members–even the ones who irk, irritate and otherwise bother us? Is the board president not confident enough in his own skin to derive sufficient power through the power of patience and tolerance? And when a board president oversteps his bounds, where are the individual board members (who are supposed to defend the members) to call a halt to this?
Member comments are discretionary? A privilege? Really? In 2008, as part of the reforms undertaken by PEC to separate itself from 30 years of secret, crooked dealings under the reign of Mr. Fuelberg (now in jail for his crimes), former General Manager Juan Garza testified under oath before Congress. Speaking for PEC, Garza made this statement before Sen. Jim Cooper’s committee, tantamount to a promise: “…the monthly board meetings are held in PEC’s auditorium to allow for greater member participation, with time reserved on each agenda for member comments…”
Beyond this, other concerns over Mr. Oakley’s leadership will be addressed Monday, including certain public statements made by Mr. Oakley which run contrary to unanimously approved board policy. It is unclear how much of this meeting will be public and how much will be in executive session. “Legal Matters” is an all-encompassing executive session item that is easy for boards to abuse. I see no compelling reason to conduct most of Monday’s legal matters in executive session.
This blogger has no interest in parsing around the edges when it comes to free speech. PEC Truthwatch offers at least three actions the board should take MONDAY with respect to the “member comments” incident.
- It must move to rescind the language on the “sign up sheet” until it is reviewed and authorized by the full board.
- The free and unfettered right of members to speak their mind on any topic they wish without any rules of prior restraint must be made as clear board policy. I hope a resolution to this effect is passed MONDAY. There are already laws in the United States that prohibit libel, slander and disorderly conduct and there is no need to include those items in this policy.
- The Board must add to the Member Bill of Rights a free speech paragraph (subject to member ratification next June) that memorializes this right so that no future board or presiding officer believes they have the right to take it away. If the board will not step forward to introduce such an item, then a member shall.