Citing fallout from a board member’s racially charged comments last fall, the chief executive officer of Pedernales Electric Cooperative said during a public meeting this week that he can’t continue in the post but stopped short of abruptly resigning.
John D. Hewa, who has headed the co-op since 2013, accused board members of retaliating against employees for speaking out against racial insensitivity in the aftermath of the highly publicized comments by board member James Oakley that many observers interpreted as a reference to lynching.
“My continued service as CEO has become impossible because of this situation,” Hewa said during a board meeting Monday. “I’m in the process of providing the board details.”
Oakley, who serves as Burnet County judge and was first elected to the co-op’s board in 2013, wrote on social media last November that it was “time for a tree and a rope” in reference to an African-American suspect in the killing of a San Antonio police officer.
Oakley deleted the post and apologized publicly for the statement. But he has denied that he had any racist intent in making the remark, recently telling the State Commission on Judicial Conduct that he was thinking instead about hangings in the Old West and the humorous take on them in a 1980s television commercial for Pace Picante Sauce.
Hewa said during the meeting Monday that the board’s response to the concerns of employees in the wake of the controversy “has been inappropriate.”
Before Hewa could continue with specifics, however, board president Emily Pataki interrupted, saying he was risking exposing the co-op to civil liability.
“You aren’t going to be able to continue with this line of speech,” Pataki said. “This is not accurate. I think you know on advice of attorney, you are not supposed to be speaking on these matters.”
But she said the board would work with Hewa to “make this transition as smooth as possible.”
As of Thursday afternoon, Hewa remained the co-op’s CEO. Alyssa Clemsen Roberts, a PEC vice president, said Hewa has not resigned but declined to comment further, saying the co-op’s policy is not to discuss personnel matters.
Hewa did not immediately respond Thursday to an email from the American-Statesman seeking further comment.
Two weeks ago, Oakley received a formal reprimand from the State Commission on Judicial Conduct as a result of his social media post. Rejecting Oakley’s explanation, the commission concluded that the comments “cast reasonable doubt on his capacity to act impartially,” and that he willfully acted in a way that discredited the judiciary.
Oakley will be required to complete a 30-hour training program for new judges and participate in four hours of racial sensitivity training with a mentor.
But some co-op employees and members have contended that the punishment doled out by Oakley’s fellow board members hasn’t been harsh enough. In January, the co-op’s board voted to reprimand Oakley and demote him from a board leadership position, but stopped short of removing him from the board as some had wanted.
Hewa said Monday, before Pataki asked him to stop talking, that he has “personally witnessed retaliation” against co-op employees in the wake of the incident.
“Conditions for some of our key employees in the organization have become untenable because of the conduct of the board,” he said. “Those of us who spoke up to support minority employees and to object to racially insensitive comments were assured that retaliation would not occur. This has not been the case.”
Oakley was in attendance Monday but didn’t publicly respond to Hewa’s statements. During a meeting in January, he reiterated that he didn’t intend for his post to be taken as racist.
“It was not even in the realm of my thinking,” Oakley said in January. “My focus was on the crime of a police officer being shot in the head merely for wearing the uniform.”