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IREA holding pivotal election

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Challengers promise more transparency, shift to renewable energy

By Nicole Queen

Results should be available Wednesday in pivotal elections for three seats on the board of the Intermountain Rural Electric Association.

The three challengers all have been endorsed by IREA Voices, a group of co-op members who say IREA is mired in fossil-fuel thinking and lacks transparency in the way it does business.

In District 5, challenger John Masson is facing off against incumbent Bruff Shea; in District 3, Mike Galvin is challenging Gene Sperry; and in District 7, Charles Bucknam is seeking to unseat George Hier.

While all three candidates are running their own campaigns, their complaints about IREA are similar, and they hope to change the culture at the state’s largest electrical co-op by winning a majority on the seven-member board.

The challengers believe alternative and renewable energy sources are the future of energy and coal is going the way of the dinosaur. And, most importantly, to IREA Voices and the candidates, the key promise in their campaigns is to create a more transparent board and management.

“I would say they’re very opaque in everything they do,” Galvin said. “Everything’s a secret. They are not open in their transactions. That’s more of my motivation for running than actually to be a green candidate.”

Mike Kempe, board director for District 1, which covers parts of Conifer, Roxborough, Evergreen and Morrison, has been advancing the green and open agenda since his election two years ago.

Kempe is hoping the election provides more voices to back him up on the board, ending his days as a lone wolf.

“Getting (any challenger) on the board means I would get a second,” Kempe said. “There would be more than one person asking tough questions of management. I’ve been on the board 2 1/2 years, (and) I’m the only one who’s ever voted no on anything …

“As far as I can tell, since the ‘80s, it’s been a long time since anyone really questioned management,” Kempe said. “So getting more people on the board, we’d have more people to require management to back things up … but it’s an uphill battle.”

Masson said the campaigns have been a “monumental battle.” But in many ways the battle started three years ago.

Members formed IREA Voices — including Kempe, who severed ties with the group after his election — after IREA paid global warming skeptic Patrick Michaels $100,000 in 2006. At the same time, IREA purchased a quarter of a share in Xcel’s Comanche 3 coal plant in Pueblo.

“This all took place without a vote of the members,” said Michael Chiodo, a member of IREA Voices’ steering committee. “Some people realized there was no oversight by the board.

“What’s happening right now is, (Kempe) tries to get a discussion on something, but as one vote, he can’t get a second. He can’t even get anything placed on the agenda. He’s got his hands tied as to what he can accomplish.”

According to Kempe, the board wouldn’t let him publish his contact information on IREA’s website, nor would board members consider using federal stimulus money to develop renewable energy sources.

Not so, said incumbent Sperry.

“We just don’t need the money,” he said. “I’m not a big backer of the stimulus money in the first place. But we’re doing fine.”

A recent article in Westword quoted longtime IREA managing director Stan Lewandowski as saying the stimulus money was a socialist program.

“I think IREA has gotten the reputation that we’re against big-time wind and solar,” Sperry said. “When they are developed and more cost-effecting, I think that IREA will jump on that bandwagon big time. But in the grand scheme of things, we’re not an Xcel, but we think (renewable energy) is just too expensive right now.”

IREA boasts the second lowest rates in Colorado, thanks to its coal use, and rates haven’t increased for 22 years.

As far as the transparency issue, Sperry said there is none.

“I was reading that you have to make an appointment to attend the director meetings,” he said. “If the person is a member, they are certainly welcome to come to our director meetings. And we do a newsletter four times a year, and I put my office number in there; I put my home number.”

The IREA newsletter, Watts and Volts, is included with members’ bills, said IREA spokesman Bill Schroeder, and board members send out newsletters in their districts.

“Every board member sends out a newsletter for their district alone with their names on there,” said Schroeder. “It’s not pick or choose.”

But Chiodo said IREA Voices maintains that transparent management is the key issue and that a push for renewable energy comes next.

“All that stuff is kind of secondary to having  a board that functions properly,” he said. “Nothing changes unless a board starts functioning the way it’s supposed to function.”

Schroeder said the future of the co-op — as well as the price members pay for power — hinges on the board’s direction.

“If you’re elected, you need to follow where the customers want to go,” he said. “Each election is kind of a referendum to where the customers want it to go. So, if customers want higher rates and less usage, then they’ll vote for the new candidates.”

The ballots were sent to a third party to be counted, and results should be available at the end of business on Wednesday.

Check www.hightimbertimes.com for election results.

Contact Nicole at nicole@evergreenco.com.