WASILLA -- In continued outfall from the Matanuska Electric Association's decision two years ago to build a coal-fired power plant on the Glenn Highway, the association's board Monday night moved to oust two longtime utility executives and plans to consider firing its general manager too.
The board directed MEA general manager Wayne Carmony to fire "without cause" Tuckerman Babcock, an assistant general manager at the utility who was in charge of human resources and three other departments, and Bruce Scott, the director of information technology. It also directed its attorney to prepare a motion to terminate Carmony for cause but did not take that motion up Monday. The cause for his termination was not stated.
Their actions followed a closed-door meeting where they discussed "employment agreements."
The board suspended Babcock and Scott immediately Monday. Most of the motions passed 5-2 with board members David Glines and Larry DeVilbiss opposed. Board member Peter Burchell joined them in opposing Babcock's firing.
Board president Lois Lester refused Tuesday to say why Babcock and Scott were singled out among MEA management, or about what the shakeup meant for the future of the utility.
"It's best for the cooperative that this is what happens. That's all I can say," Lester said.
Plans for a coal plant near Palmer were shelved in 2007 and last year removed from consideration entirely. Instead, the utility plans to build a natural gas plant on land at Eklutna. The Anchorage Assembly was scheduled to discuss a zoning permit for that project Tuesday.
Capitalizing on the uproar the coal plant plans generated, Palmer businesswoman Janet Kincaid won election last year to the seven-person board and Catharine "Kit" Jones, an organizer of a group that protested the coal plant, was appointed to a vacant seat. That shifted the power balance on the board to one that was less favorable to Carmony and his leadership.
MEA distributes power to about 45,000 customers between Eagle River and Trapper Creek. Carmony has run the Palmer-based utility for 14 years. Babcock has worked there for 10 years. Scott, who on Monday turned 60, was one of the longest-tenured MEA employees at 24 years.
Jones said the board does not have an interim manager ready to replace Carmony but expects one would be appointed if Carmony is terminated.
The Carmony era of management has been marked by an emphasis on cost controls through tough union contract negotiations and a willingness to contract out work previously done by union employees, along with animosity toward Chugach Electric Association, the Anchorage power company that has supplied MEA with electricity for decades.
For several years a small but vocal minority of the board has objected to decisions made by utility managers relating to future power supplies, high legal expenses and a refusal to cooperate with other utilities. When Kincaid and Jones were seated, that minority became a five-member majority.
The news of the firings was not surprising to those who follow politics at MEA. But many are speculating about the board's timing.
"It's a terrible action they're taking. It's just two weeks before the (new board) election and it looks like it's a payback to the people who supported them," said former MEA board member Lee Jordan.
Babcock on Tuesday said he believes his firing is directly linked to the upcoming utility election. MEA members began receiving ballots for the board election this week.
Babcock's wife, Kristie Babcock, and her parents, former state Sen. Lyda Green and husband, Curtis Green, donated money to board candidate Crystal Nygard's campaign. Nygard and another candidate, Marvin Yoder, are among those opposing the re-election of utility board president Lois Lester and board appointee Catharine "Kit" Jones. Tom Staudenmaier of Eagle River is also running.
Lester, at Monday's meeting, denied that the board actions were politically motivated.
Scott on Tuesday said he had donated $100 to Nygard's campaign but was not sure if that led to his termination. He suspected union negotiations may have played a part. Scott and Babcock represented the utility in negotiations. Board members voted in a new contract with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Monday, over objections from Carmony, who called the contract "excessive."
Find Rindi White online at adn.com/contact/rwhite or call her in Wasilla at 907-352-6709.
By RINDI WHITE