With lawsuit settlement, turbulent PUD likely to now appear ... settled
The loud legislative and administrative noise spewing from the Columbia River People's Utility District over the last few years will likely stem to a muted whisper now that the district has settled a lawsuit filed against it by four former department managers.
The PUD has weathered every justifiable criticism lobbed against it, has stood firm and obstinate in the face of a wide variety of issues, and has come through the other end firmly in the catbird seat. The PUD board of directors and its current administrative leaders deserve our applause, if for no other reason than for offering a sublime lesson on how to push forward personal agendas, dismiss opponents, quiet dissenters and genuinely thrive in our modern world. Take notes, kids.
The lawsuit was arguably the last obstacle to a clear path forward for the PUD.
By settling, the fired former managers were awarded a total $1.3 million, a not unhandsome sum but certainly less than the $7 million asked for in the original complaint. Valarie Koss, one of the four managers fired by PUD General Manager John Nguyen less than a month after Nguyen was appointed to an interim version of his now-permanent position, said the settlement served as vindication for wrongdoing against her and the other managers.
Of course, the PUD admitted no wrongdoing when it agreed to the settlement, which is ultimately going to be paid by the PUD's former liability insurance provider, Special Districts Insurance Services.
SDIS announced it was dropping the PUD as a client when it perceived rash actions by the PUD board and top administrators were posing undue liability risks. Before the coverage drop could be effectuated, however, Nguyen fired the managers without cause after they had exercised their option to receive a contractually agreed payment from the PUD. The managers' contracts in question had been negotiated by the prior general manager, Kevin Owens, and were a sore spot with PUD board directors Jake Carter, Craig Melton and Harry Price.
Nguyen, dutifully — though he says he was acting of his own volition — and summarily fired the managers after being in the job a mere three weeks, without consulting with SDIS as would have been standard protocol — an action a more experienced and qualified general manager would likely have pursued. Crazier, perhaps, is that directors Carter, Melton and Price placed Nguyen in that position knowing he had only recently filed, and dropped, a lawsuit naming Koss as a defendant. His firing of Koss, at the least, reeked of retaliation. And no doubt the PUD read it as such when it agreed to settle for $1.3 million. Or it didn't care because it was spending some other agency's money.
In the interest of transparency, we wanted the lawsuit to go forward. It felt like the managers' day in court would reiterate and punctuate the misdirection that's been taking place at the PUD for far too long, possibly even serve as the wake-up call to ratepayers that's been missing. We wanted to see the discovery, to listen to the PUD's attorneys rationalize the board and management actions. That opportunity has now passed.
Nailing down exactly where the PUD mess started is difficult. We can look at a Bureau of Labor and Industries claim Nguyen — a former PUD IT manager who had been fired in 2013, and rehired in 2015 — had filed against Owens as one possible start. There were other claims at the time, from other employees, that the Owens' regime at the PUD was indeed toxic. But the chain of events that concluded with the settled lawsuit likely started earlier. Possibly to when Carter —- now the PUD board president who is also the business manager for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers union out of Portland — worked for the PUD when Owens was general manager, quit, and then made a successful election bid to serve on the PUD board.
Since then we observed, in no particular order:
¦ The removal of Owens and his subsequent payout of a separation agreement valued at $130,000;
¦ A $270,000 settlement with Nguyen and creation of a special position for Nguyen to rejoin the PUD;
¦ The awkward installment and removal of a handful of interim general managers;
¦ Punitive changes in board policies by the Carter, Melton, Price majority that sought to punish and box in former board director Dave Baker, who was routinely targeted and smeared by the board majority;
¦ Slick digital PR campaigns — we would still love to know who really cooked up and managed the so-called "Friends of CRPUD" initiative — seemingly a pro effort sprung from nowhere to defend board member Melton as he was the subject of a recall initiative;
¦ PUD raises and departmental expansions for those loyal to the anti-Owens, pro-board majority storyline — some have characterized the PUD events as the actions of an employee coup, and that's arguably not far off the mark;
¦ The denial of Scappoose voters who elected Nancy Ward as Subdivision 1 director, and the subsequent appointment of Debbie Reed (pretty much the polar opposite of Ward and a clamorous fan of the Carter, Melton, and Price majority) to fill that role;
¦ A ludicrous, trumped-up effort to charge Baker and his son, Riley, with felony voter fraud, in which we suspect a degree of PUD board member collusion. To be clear, Columbia Circuit Judge Ted Grove, while acknowledging the Bakers made a mistake, said "I don't think it was intentional ... I think you're being made an example of." We agree.
¦ The hiring of Nguyen at a salary of $207,000, even though the PUD board had railed against Owens' more than $200,000 annual compensation, which was part of its discussion when considering severing ties with Owens. In fact, Nguyen is now the highest paid public employee in Columbia County.
The list goes on.
With the settlement involving the four fired managers and the loss of Dave Baker's voice on the board — the only one that rose above the snarky fray born of nepotism and cronyism commonplace at the clubhouse-style PUD board meetings — the turbulence at the PUD is likely to have every perception of being ... well, settled.
Unfortunately for those few who genuinely paid attention to the PUD events over the past three years, who took the time to pull back the PUD's political rugs to have a hard look at the dirt so craftily swept underneath, they never will be.