published Friday, December 7th, 2012

Partisan battle leaves TVA board in lurch

Tennessee Valley Authority headquarters and TVA logo
Tennessee Valley Authority headquarters and TVA logo
Miranda Harple

TVA board appointments

• Marilyn Brown, a nominee for reappointment who also is a professor at the School of Public Policy at the Georgia Institute of Technology and a distinguished visiting scientist at Oak Ridge National Laboratory. She is a co-recipient of the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize for her work with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

• V. Lynn Evans, the owner of V. Lynn Evans, CPA, a certified public accounting and consulting firm and a board member of Memphis Light, Gas and Water Division since 2004.

• Michael McWherter, owner and president of Central Distributors Co. and Volunteer Distributing Co. The son of former Tennessee Gov. Ned McWherter, he has worked in private law practice with a focus on banking and administrative law.

• Joe H. Ritch, an attorney at the Sirote & Permutt law firm in Huntsville, Ala., and chairman of the Tennessee Valley Base Realignment and Closures Committee and as co-chairman of the Tennessee Valley Growth Coordination Group.

• Peter Mahurin, chairman of Hilliard Lyons Financial Services and board member for Houchens Industries, Albany Bancorp, Cecelia Bancorp, Gray Construction, Jackson Financial and the Governors Scholars of Kentucky.

Tennessee Valley electric ratepayers may be finding themselves on the bench in a game of partisan football in coming weeks.

Five nominations for the nine-member board are pending congressional action. President Barack Obama made one nomination in February and four more in September. Yet the Senate has not acted, even though Sen. Lamar Alexander serves on the Environment and Public Works Committee responsible for moving the nominations.

Now three of the nine positions have been vacant for a year, and the terms of two other directors will end later this month.

On Monday, the handful of remaining TVA board members -- fearing vacancies will leave them without a quorum when Congress adjourns at the end of December -- plan a special meeting to delegate authority to a brand-new and untried TVA president and CEO.

"It's another example of dysfunction in the Senate," said Stephen Smith, a longtime TVA board watcher and executive director of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy.

"While the TVA board does not operate in a partisan way, the senators only see through a partisan lens," he said. "I think they were hoping for a different outcome of the election."

But Alexander and Sen. Bob Corker, both Republicans, in recent months have said the TVA didn't seem to be a priority in Washington.

Alexander in September complained he wasn't consulted when the nominations were made, and twice he has blamed the Obama administration for not making the nominations sooner.

"The Senate is moving rapidly to consider the president's nominees, but three of them were one year and a half late, two were six months late, and the papers for the last nominee arrived at the Senate only three weeks ago," Alexander said, referring to the terms of some board members that ended in May 2010, though board members routinely serve until the end of the year if Congress has not yet approved their replacements.

"Given that delay, the TVA board's plan to delegate temporary authority is wise and should make sure that the delay causes no problems," Alexander added in a prepared statement.

Corker, too, grouched at the Obama administration and repeated his own concerns about TVA board members' fiscal expertise. He said he met with the nominees this week.

"The critical issue for me as I continue to evaluate their backgrounds is whether they have appropriate experience to help guide an $11 billion entity like TVA, which is one of the largest utilities in the U.S.," Corker said.

He said the Senate should have time to fully vet their qualifications, including a public hearing.

"Since it looks like that can't happen before January, I'm glad the board is making preparations now so it can function appropriately in the New Year," Corker said.

Smith isn't buying the senators' arguments.

"The president has done what he is supposed to do. He put forth a full team. It is now in the hands of the Senate," said Smith.

"I don't know why they're trying to pin this on Obama," he said. "What I guess they are saying is they don't have any power in the Senate [to move it forward]?"

Timing

The utility that provides electricity for 9 million people in seven states has a new and untried CEO and president stepping in the door in 2013.

TVA's No. 2 leader, 60-year-old William R. "Bill" McCollum Jr., retired June 30, and many nuclear plant managers have been shuffled within the past 18 months.

Ralph Rodgers, executive vice president and general counsel, said he advised the board to call the special meeting and arrange for a period of no quorum -- just to be prepared.

He said it wouldn't be the first time TVA has operated without a quorum, though the last time was in the 1990s.

"We keep the lights on," Rodgers said of such periods. "We're just being cautious" in making the planned delegations.

TVA Board Chairman William "Bill" Sansom -- recommended in 2006 by Alexander and reappointed in 2009 by Obama -- did not return a call for comment.

After Monday, the next scheduled TVA board meeting is in February.

about Pam Sohn...

Pam Sohn has been reporting or editing Chattanooga news for 25 years. A Walden’s Ridge native, she began her journalism career with a 10-year stint at the Anniston (Ala.) Star. She came to the Chattanooga Times Free Press in 1999 after working at the Chattanooga Times for 14 years. She has been a city editor, Sunday editor, wire editor, projects team leader and assistant lifestyle editor. As a reporter, she also has covered the police, ...

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