Local News

Southeast energy commission puts two employees on paid leave

The Thomas Bay Power Authority is locking the doors of its Wrangell business office this summer and is placing two office employees on paid administrative leave. The joint Wrangell and Petersburg organization oversees the operations of the Tyee Lake Hydro-electric plant, which generates electricity for the two communities along with Ketchikan. The authority and it’s appointed commission could be mothballed later this year.
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Wrangell and Petersburg formed the authority in 1974 to pursue construction of a hydro project that could serve the two communities. That resulted in the Tyee Lake hydro plant. Originally a state-owned project it’s now owned by the Southeast Alaska Power Agency, based in Ketchikan. Control of the day to day operations at Tyee Lake could be transferred to SEAPA this year. If that happens the Thomas Bay would become inactive. That controversial transfer has left the organization in a little disarray.

Following the resignation of two Wrangell members of the Thomas Bay Commission in June, the remaining commissioners voted to directed their absent general manager to prepare a budget and present it to them at another meeting June 27.

Vice president Robert Larson of Petersburg said he passed that request on to GM Michael Nicholls. “Not only was he asked to provide for the financial statements which my understanding was they are prepared and up to date, so the work has been done, it just hasn’t been transmitted to the commission.”

Larson said he also asked Nicholls to attend the June 27th meeting. “Although it’s a teleconferenced meeting, he is to the best of my knowledge in the office but not on the phone.”
Neither Nicholls nor office manager Rhonda Dawson-Christian, secretary to the commission attended commission meetings in June. Commissioners thought both were still collecting a paycheck from Thomas Bay.

Commissioners also heard that staff was not cooperating with the transfer of operations of the Tyee Lake hydro plant to the Southeast Alaska Power Agency. The CEO of SEAPA Trey Acteson said he tried to get some documents from the TBPA office needed for SEAPA to consider the transfer. “I stopped by the office personally earlier this week and was told by the manager that I needed a court order to get those documents.”

“Thank you Trey that’s not going to be an issue and whatever information you need we’re gonna get to you almost instantly,” Larson responded.

That’s commission vice president Larson responding.

The commission has had a few rocky recent years. Commissioners have disagreed on hiring managers and other issues. Representatives from the two communities have also gone in different directions on a variety of issues – from the development of a new hydro source in Thomas Bay, to the construction of a powerline to the Canadian grid.

Just over a year ago, Petersburg’s assembly voted not to fund a portion of the Thomas Bay budget that has been split by the two communities. That money pays for the office staff and administration costs.

The failure to perform the job requested by the commission and lack of participation had the commissioners talking about ending employment, at least in Nicholls case. However, they agreed to wait on that decision until a meeting July 9th.

Larson summed up some advice from clerks from both boroughs. “If the motion that the commission is going to entertain involves termination then it’s probably not appropriate to take it up in open session right now without notice and without providing Mr. Nicholls a opportunity to participate in open session or executive session.”

Commissioner Clay Hammer to suggested a different tack. “I would like to make a motion at this time, this is Clay, that we put the Thomas Bay general manager on administrative leave effective immediately. Second. And I would like to also include the secretary in that as well. With the provision with the secretary basically until we get the general manager situation resolved I think it would be appropriate to have both positions placed on administrative leave.”

That motion passed unanimously. Commission members also wanted Hammer to go to the Wrangell office, get the keys and the credit cards and lock it up, after Nicholls and Dawson Christian were allowed to pack up their belongings.

Wrangell borough assembly member Julie Decker was frustrated with the situation. “When I got on the assembly I took a lot of time sitting down with Thomas Bay Power Authority staff as well as many of the people to try to take care of their concerns and make them conditional in the transfer of operations to SEAPA and it seems like all the way along this process we bent over backwards to take care of their concerns and this is absolutely horrible treatment.”

Decker applauded the staff of SEAPA for their handling of the situation.

Despite the business office being locked up, it sounds like the lights will still stay on – Tyee foreman Steve Beers said the plant will continue to operate. “Just FYI for you guys everything will hold together, no matter what you do. (JOE NELSON) We’re countin on you Steve. (ROBERT LARSON) Steve that was my concern that you are fully aware that you’re gonna be responsible for the operations there at Tyee. I have been for some time so it’s OK. OK”

Union employees at the plant will eventually work for SEAPA once the transfer happens.

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