CHARGE: Once again less than a third of Kaua`i Island Utility Co-op (KIUC) members voted in the recent board of directors' election. And we think we've discovered at least one reason why.
Although almost a thousand more ballots were cast in this year's election than last, it was not a record number of participants, according to statistics provided by Jonathan Jay, founder of the "P2P" group that organized a huge get-out-the-vote effort.
And despite the campaign that resulted in three new faces on the board, "voter turnout" remained dismally low.
But that may be because not all members are receiving ballots to vote, as one Lawai woman learned last Thursday.
Because of the campaign, Larissa Varaday had heard about the election this time and decided that, because her family's electric bill is in her name, she was going to vote this time. So she want to the KIUC web site, watched the videos of all the candidates, read up on their positions on the issues and chose the three she wanted to vote for.
But Varaday had never received a ballot from KIUC and when she tried to vote on-line she found that she couldn't because she didn't have her "authorization code" number.
After an email and a series of phone calls, she finally reached someone live at KIUC where she was told that it was "too late" for her to vote this time because the Saturday deadline was "too close" and that she could not get her "code" at that late date.
But what she found out next may go a long way to explaining why voter turnout is so low, assuming there are many others out there like her.
Varaday was told that the reason she had never received any ballots for KIUC elections is that five years ago, when she signed up for service, she either did or didn't check a box on her application that apparently determined whether or not she would receive election ballots from KIUC in perpetuity.
"I don't remember whether I checked or didn't check a box- it was five years ago," she said. "I didn't even know there was anything to vote for at the time."
She said she was unclear on Thursday after talking to KIUC whether she had checked or not checked the box but one thing was clear- whatever she had done on her original application had put her on a permanent list of people who never receive ballots or even apparently any notification that there are elections... elections in which they are not currently permitted to participate.
"It's ridiculous," she said on Sunday after the results were in. "I don't think you should have to sign up to vote. Everyone who gets a bill should automatically be able to vote."
Varaday said that she was not even offered the opportunity to come down to the KIUC offices to vote in person. She was just told that with three days left in the election it was too late to give her an authorization code or reverse whatever it was that she did way back when she applied for service.
After spending days doing the research, Varaday felt cheated out of her voice in the co-op's future.
"There are some important issues with energy and all members should get a ballot," she said adding that "it's just not fair" that after doing all that work and finally calling with three days still left she was essentially blown off by KIUC. Rather than having them figure out a way that she could vote- no matter what box she did or didn’t check on her original application- it was apparently too much trouble for KIUC to accommodate a member who wanted to participate in her co-op.
Varaday said she was also told that when people sign up for service, if they want to vote, they are charged a penny- one cent- on their first bill.
We couldn't reach a person at KIUC apparently because it is a holiday weekend.
The question is of course how many more "members" are out there like Varaday who, unbeknownst to them, somehow wound up on the "no ballot sent" list. But even more distressing is the fact that KIUC has kept what amounts to a voter suppression measure a secret.
If KIUC and its board members really wanted to increase participation, doesn't it seem like they would try to make sure that those who filled out their applications really meant to disenfranchise themselves when they failed to correctly read the fine print on their applications?
We're sure that Jay and the others who worked diligently to get people to vote would have liked to know that there was a cap on the number of members who received ballots.
Not for nothing but that fine print on the original application signed by the "member" is also the reason why KIUC can be so cavalier about entering people's properties and installing so-called "smart meters."
While working on another story years ago we discovered that when you sign up for electric service you also sign a form that gives your permission for KIUC- or Citizen's Utilities before them- not only to enter your property, but to install and maintain the wires and meter. "Their" property is defined as all their equipment from the pole to where the wiring in your house begins, "after" the meter.
And if you have electric service you've already given your permission for them to enter your property to install and maintain it all.
The recent federal lawsuit filed by Adam Asquith of Hanalei appears to be based on a misunderstanding of that part of the "contract" between KIUC and the user/member.
After KIUC put out a press release branding him a "smart meter opponent" and characterizing the suit as being part of the movement against smart meters Asquith spoke to Joan Conrow to clear up why he filed the suit.
According to a post Conrow wrote at KauaiEclectic,
Adam said the press release, which brands him a “local smart meter opponent,” is “a total mis- characterization of my stance on smart meters. This is entirely an issue of the sanctity of my home and my right to deny installation of a very new and novel device at my home. I'm a strong proponent of smart technology and smart meters in certain applications. I really would like to be a voluntary participant in this federal project.”
The operative word here is voluntary. “If they would seek consent, they'd find it, but if they seek to force this, they'll find resistance,” he said.
Asquith can't be blamed for not knowing that he had signed away his right to be asked to "opt in" rather than having to "opt out." He's certainly not alone. And to make things worse, obviously KIUC is not exactly forthcoming with this fact even after months of controversy where others have essentially said what Asquith has said but without doing so in a lawsuit.
Just like the fine print KIUC is using to suppress the vote of co-op members like Varaday, the fine print that allows them to control their wires and meter- and "trespass" to do so- is apparently being treated as "proprietary information"--just like just about everything at KIUC.
It makes any notion of transparency and open governance a complete joke.
Yes, apparently KIUC is "fulfilling their legal obligations." But more and more these days, doesn't it seem like that phrase is becoming the last refuge of a scoundrel?
We're pretty sure Varaday and Asquith would agree.
Just because KIUC has the right to do things doesn't mean it's the right thing to do- especially given that it is alleged to be a "co-op," governed and run, by and for, the benefit of the members.