By Larry Landaker
James Oakley likes to surround himself with wannabee power players. He has a friend named A.B. Walters who moved to Burnet County in 2010. Local media stories at the time compared him to “Stovepipe Johnson”, a confederate brigadier general, Indian fighter and the founder of Marble Falls. Flattered though he may be about the comparisons, Mr. Walter’s lips drip with venom. At the December 2016 PEC meeting, Mr. Walters rose to the podium in defense of Director Oakley’s now-infamous “time for a tree and a rope” comment. Walters made sure the audience knew how wealthy and successful he was and how powerful he’d like to be before hurling his threat directed at senior PEC management. “Better dust off your resumes”, he intoned.
Unclear at the time was just how quickly those words would prove to be a harbinger of things to come.
Because of Mr. Oakley’s continued presence on the PEC board, the cooperative sits precariously near the edge of chaos, turmoil and dysfunction. The workforce is distressed–many are deeply troubled. It is hard to know who is more to blame: the Board of Directors or the board member they have enabled, James Oakley. At stake is the future leadership of PEC at its highest levels. It is clear that no CEO of integrity can function under a board that seems willing to operate in toleration of flagrantly racist comments publicly made by one of its own and without respect for the delegation of authority given the CEO. In fact, the current CEO (and other employees) may have been retaliated against by Mr. Oakley precisely for speaking or acting in opposition to Mr. Oakley’s “time for a tree and a rope” remarks, or for for protecting employees from them. One notable example of Mr. Oakley’s interference was when the communications department wrote a press release intended to separate the cooperative’s values from those of Mr. Oakley’s comments. Mr. Oakley ordered the press release taken down.
Mr. Oakley has become a one-man wrecking ball. Sources within PEC have informed PECTruthwatch that Mr. Oakley was not happy with the PEC Board Complaint Committee’s punishment (warning and removal of his title as board vice president) imposed in January, 2017 and proceeded to disregard the warning he was given in a resolution passed by the Board. That warning explicitly said, “No member or employee should be subject to any actual, or perceived, act of retaliation for their individual input into the Cooperative’s review of this matter. Retaliation is strictly prohibited under PEC policy; and the Board authorizes and encourages PEC Management to act swiftly under current PEC policy and procedures with the reporting and immediate addressing of any action of retaliation.” Sources within PEC have advised PECTruthwatch that Mr. Oakley may have engaged in such retaliation against specific employees.
Following PEC’s action taken against Mr. Oakley, the Texas State Commission on Judicial Conduct concluded its own review and consideration of the matter and made its recommendations. Mr. Oakley is the sitting Burnet county judge. Included in their recommendations was a strong reprimand and the order of additional training hours and sensitivity counseling for Mr. Oakley.
The Commission took pains to note that Mr. Oakley’s conduct “cast reasonable doubt on his capacity to act impartially in the performance of his duties as a judge. They said he cast discredit on the judiciary and thus violated the Texas Constitution.
It is not known whether the PEC Board, the Complaint Committee or general counsel ever examined the Texas Constitution or, for that matter, Title 7 of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, for similar language about retaliation.
CEO John Hewa
At risk is the utterly needless loss of an industry-respected CEO and his senior team. At further risk is the stability of a dedicated workplace, still un-recovered from the turmoil fomented by the incendiary, “time for a tree and a rope” comment which was given national and international attention. At risk is the safety of employees who now operate in fear from opposing Mr. Oakley. At risk is the relative peace and harmony of an effective, highly trained workforce, some of whom are now working in contentious environments. At risk is a huge financial loss to PEC members, possibly in the millions of dollars, resulting from replacing personnel, not to mention the potential for lawsuits and further loss of cooperative reputation.
This entire debacle has resulted from the Board’s failure to act when it should have—within days of Mr. Oakley’s comments. Instead, under weak board leadership, it dithered and allowed itself to be intimidated by Mr. Oakley.
Mr. Oakley’s comments have now become branded onto the public image of PEC. A simple Google search of the name, “Pedernales Electric Cooperative” produces a screen full of shots of Mr. Oakley and his “tree and a rope” comments. Those comments remain there forever. There is good reason why corporations, municipalities, school boards, etc. move quickly to fire or remove people within their organizations publicly identified with racist comments. It is not for political correctness. Such comments do untold damage to corporate image and ultimately the bottom line. Lost in that conversation is the hurt such comments inflict on others. PEC’s board, under the leadership of Emily Pataki, failed miserably to protect its members and employees from the damage Mr. Oakley’s racist comments have caused. They should have removed him from the Board when he failed to resign.
The board has one last swing at the plate to fix this rapidly deteriorating crisis. It must pull itself together and act in the best interests of the Cooperative, its members and employees. It must side with the State Commission on Judicial Conduct. It must side with the Texas Constitution. It must side with the policies IT created when they adopted the Complaint Committee. Above all it must side with their fiduciary duty of protecting the cooperative.
It must side with good judgement and remove Mr. Oakley from the PEC board immediately.