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Story Last modified at 8:49 p.m. on Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Sparks fly in MEA elections
Incumbents Burchell and Kincaid face former board member Folsom

Alaska Star

Two incumbents hoping to return to Matanuska Electric Association's board face a former insider in elections this spring.

Incumbents Peter Burchell and Janet Kincaid, along with former board member Bill Folsom, are vying for two at-large positions. The top two vote getters win the spots. MEA's 55,000 members include Chugiak-Eagle River residents.

The election is April 26 at the Alaska State Fairgrounds. MEA members can vote either by mail – most should have received their ballots by now – or in person at the electric cooperative's annual meeting at the fairgrounds.

The election comes as MEA looks for future power supplies and takes part in an evolving effort to coordinate generation and transmission among Railbelt utilities.

Burchell is a retired teacher who founded an alternative high school in Wasilla. Kincaid is a Palmer businesswoman who owns the Valley Hotel and Colony Inn. The two incumbents are essentially running as one, with signs advising voters to back them together.

Folsom is a retired fence builder and retailer whose campaign is co-chaired by former state senator Lyda Green from Wasilla.

The issues

With a Chugach Electric Association contract to provide electricity expiring in 2014, MEA is moving ahead with plans to build a $200 million natural gas-fired power plant at Eklutna. But the source of the gas remains unknown. Existing Cook Inlet supplies are waning, though several independent companies have recently announced plans for exploratory drilling.

When it comes to future power sources, Burchell and Kincaid both favor a combination of natural gas and hydroelectric power from the Susitna Valley. Both said they were confident MEA will find a source of gas to power the plant.

Burchell said he was also buoyed by the creation earlier this year of a new generation and transmission utility called the Alaska Railbelt Cooperative Transmission and Energy Company comprised of the five Railbelt utilities, all of them except Municipal Light & Power. When he was elected six years ago to his first term on the board, Burchell said, nobody wanted to work with MEA.

Along with producing power, the utility could be essential to addressing the long-term challenge of upgrading transmission lines.

"That's just huge," he said.

Folsom said if he had been on the board, he would have done things differently where the power plant was concerned. Instead of MEA designing and building a plant, Folsom said, he would have gone out for proposals from other entities based on MEA's power-supply needs. That way, somebody else would have to "go through the hoops" of permitting and working with agencies, something MEA is doing with a consultant's help now.

As for the umbrella utility, Folsom said that idea first surfaced with a "power-pooling" proposal during his time on the board. But MEA didn't have any power to offer, and the contract with Chugach tied their hands.

MEA CEO Joe Griffith has blamed past managers for putting off maintenance to keep rates low. Burchell and Kincaid agreed with that analysis.

Folsom said previous managers held down costs through attrition and cost-cutting measures while reducing the number of power outages.

New board, old board

Burchell and Kincaid were part of an MEA sea change that started several years ago when voters elected a board majority considered friendlier to the union representing linemen, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. The new board terminated several longtime MEA managers with a more adversarial relationship with the union, including general manager Wayne Carmony.

People aren't going to easily forget the "acrimony" over changing managers, but it's time to move past the politics that always seem to make MEA elections so divisive, Burchell said.

"I tell everybody I'm not running against Bill Folsom or Janet Kincaid," he said. "I'm running with Janet but I'm running for the member owners of MEA. Always have."

Folsom served on the board for about 10 years during the Carmony era. He is "livid" at what he described as the current board's wasteful spending and union influence.

"I have nothing but contempt for these people because they have done nothing for the members and everything for their special interests," Folsom said.

He points to the money wasted in a March trial in Palmer. A jury rejected MEA's attempt to hold Carmony liable for a $650,000 settlement paid two former managers.

He also several times referenced Kincaid's dealings with her son. The board in 2008 reprimanded Kincaid for "inadvertently" disclosing confidential information to her son, a Mat-Su electrical contractor.

Kincaid has said she didn't realize she was doing anything wrong at the time.

This week, she said the decision to sue Carmony was difficult but necessary.

Overall, Kincaid and Burchell both said, morale at MEA is much higher than it used to be.

"When I got on the board in 2008 we had pages of grievances, and the lawsuits and everything," Kincaid said Monday, a few hours before a board meeting. "I just got my board packet. Zero grievances. Isn't that great?"

Nomination debate

As the MEA board campaign got under way in March, a member committee established to nominate candidates endorsed Burchell and Kincaid – but not Folsom.

The chair of that committee, Wasilla businesswoman Lori Gorsch, said Folsom showed "a lack of respect" and came in looking for a fight, particularly with an inference in his candidate statement to board members beholden to special interests.

"We didn't think he was a good candidate that would be good working within the board to get things done, and MEA very much needs getting things done," Gorsch said.

Folsom's statement, in part, says MEA "cannot afford to continue to be the Sugar Daddy to special interest groups."

Asked if the board factored in Folsom's support for past managers, Gorsch said the committee members didn't know much about his history.

The committee knew that Folsom could still run for the board by submitting a petition with 50 signatures, she said.

Only four members of the seven-person committee were present for the vote on nominations, Gorsch said. She didn't recall the actual vote.

Folsom said the board would benefit from his expertise and experience but said people involved with the nominating committee convinced members he wouldn't be a good candidate.

The nominating committee in the past has not approved other candidates, including current board president Lois Lester and former board member Katie Hurley – who sat on this year's committee.

This article published in The Alaska Star on Wednesday, April 13, 2011.