TVA and the public meeting that wasn't

TVA and the public meeting that wasn't

May 8th, 2013 in Opinion Times

About 80 years ago, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, in offering the Tennessee Valley Authority Act of 1933 to the U.S. Congress, described his vision for a public utility to use the Tennessee River to bring jobs and prosperity to the South:

" ... A corporation clothed with the power of government but possessed of the flexibility and initiative of a private enterprise ... should be charged with the broadest duty of planning for the proper use, conservation and development of the natural resources of the Tennessee River drainage basin and its adjoining territory for the general social and economic welfare of the nation. This authority should also be clothed with the necessary power to carry these plans into effect."

These great words of great expectation from a great man led to the creation of the nation's largest public utility.

That utility's board has no oversight. It does not answer to regulatory authority as does Southern Company, Georgia's primary electric utility, for instance, which is overseen to some extent by both the Georgia Public Service Commission and by the corporate stockholders.

TVA board members - appointed by the president and approved by Congress - answer instead to the public and to electricity ratepayers who are billed by distributors such as EPB.

How is it then that, petitioned by one of those ratepayers, the TVA Office of Inspector General can say TVA didn't violate the federal Sunshine Act when its board hired TVA President and CEO Bill Johnson without a meeting or notice?

The inspector general said TVA was within its rights to hire Johnson with no meeting by using a "notational approval" voting method.

"Notational voting does not constitute a meeting," and therefore if there's no meeting, there's no violation of the Sunshine Act, the inspector general ruled. Not only that, but since there was no meeting, no notice was even required.

Notational procedure involves each member of the board casting votes without board deliberation. That means without discussion. And notational votes may be taken singly with a consultant, and apparently even by email.

So board members voted separately, and, according to TVA and the inspector general, in order to meet the requirements of notational voting, that meant "not discussing the candidates' qualifications or otherwise deliberating with one another about the selection."

So this board hired a complete stranger and agreed to pay him millions of dollars a year and did it without a conversation.

It's hard to decide which is scarier for us ratepayers and residents of the Tennessee Valley: That the public didn't hear the discussions, or that there was no discussion.

But understand that either answer means TVA's board deliberately sought out and utilized a sneaky way around you and every other member of the public and ratepayer in the valley.

And the decision wasn't one without controversy.

TVA's new hire seems to be a thoughtful and knowledgeable executive. But he also is the former Progress Energy CEO who was fired one day after becoming the CEO of Duke just after Duke merged with Progress. Duke board members said they lost confidence in him, in part, because he had withheld information from the board about rising repair costs at Progress's troubled Crystal River, Fla., nuclear plant.

The Crystal River Plant had been idle since being damaged by a 2009 generator replacement, and Duke has since decided to just shut it down.

How would it work in your household if you were hiring a building contractor for a new kitchen or a landscape architect for the backyard or a tax accountant for your two-income family but you didn't discuss it?

TVA operates six - soon to be seven - nuclear reactors at three plants, 11 coal plants, 14 gas plants, the entire Tennessee River system with its 29 hydroelectric dams and several other flood-control dams. TVA makes electricity for 9 million customers in seven states, and it is one of the largest power producers in the country.

Shouldn't the CEO be talked about and discussed and re-discussed - even debated - publicly?

But set aside any concerns of Johnson's worthiness and forget for a minute whether TVA's board members ever raised the first question among themselves about him.

Long before they got to that stage of deciding who would make the day-to-day decisions about upkeep at Sequoyah and jobs at soon-to-be idled coal plants, they were deciding to give themselves a way to vote on business cloaked in secrecy by passing notes.

And what they are saying to you with those notes and in defending this Sunshine Law challenge is that they didn't need to talk about anything out in front of you.

What they are saying is that they don't want any sunshine.

They are scared of a little public discussion.

FDR should be spinning in his grave.