Panel recommends reprimand for Pedernales director over Facebook post

A Pedernales Electric Cooperative committee is recommending that one of the utility’s directors who made controversial statements on Facebook be issued a reprimand and be demoted from his leadership position on the co-op’s board.

In November, Pedernales Electric director James Oakley wrote on Facebook that it was “time for a tree and a rope” in a post about an African-American suspect in the killing of a San Antonio police officer. Oakley deleted the post and apologized publicly for the statement. After a public outcry from its membership, the co-op board formed a committee of its directors to consider possible disciplinary action against Oakley.

That complaint committee — made up of directors Emily Pataki, Paul Graf and Kathy Scanlon — has recommended that Oakley be issued a warning and be replaced as vice president of the board of directors, according to co-op documents. He would remain on the co-op’s board, and his demotion would not change his financial compensation as a co-op director.

At Pedernales Electric board meetings since Oakley made his Facebook comments, a number of co-op members have called for his removal from the board.

Scanlon voted against the recommendation and wrote below her signature on the document “recommend removal.”

“I wanted to be clear that I did not recommend not doing anything,” Scanlon told the American-Statesman Thursday. “We could have gone on with the business of the co-op and put this behind us… Unfortunately he didn’t just take responsibility and resign and do what’s right for the co-op.”

The committee’s recommendation will be presented to the full board on Tuesday. A spokeswoman for the co-op declined to comment until after a decision is made.

“The proposed sanctions for the flagrantly inappropriate sentiment expressed by James Oakley in his Facebook posting are inadequate and not proportional to the gravity of his action,” longtime co-op activist John Watson said in a statement. “It is a sad reflection on the times we live in that the special committee did not have the clarity to label this improper behavior for what it is and recommend Mr. Oakley’s removal from board.”

Watson said the full board should disregard the recommendation and move to oust Oakley immediately.

“To do otherwise signifies that the ones voting to let him retain the position of trust with the co-op have minimized the seriousness of his offense,” Watson said.

In its findings, the committee said Oakley’s comments did not appear to be made with intentional hate or racist overtones, but found that the comments caused “unnecessary disruption” to the co-op’s management and “cast certain unfavorable light” to its goodwill and brand. The committee also said the comments caused a “negative impact” to the morale of the co-op’s workforce, which is a “diverse group” made up of more than 700 people.

Oakley said he disagreed with the committee’s findings and contended that the complaint was a political play by a rival on the board.

“I don’t agree with the findings of the committee that my comment was disruptive to the operations of the PEC,” Oakley said. “It didn’t cause any power outages and that is what the co-op is designed to do. I believe this is a political play by an adversary that wants to bring politics into the PEC board room.”

Director Cristi Clement, who filed the complaint against Oakley, declined to comment.

Oakley said his comment — made on his personal Facebook account — was “curt” and was twisted into being about the lynching of a black man. He said his focus was not on race, but on the punishment for the crime.

“The intent of my message was to say this is a horrible crime and it should qualify for the death penalty,” Oakley said. “I apologize if my comment offended anyone. That was not the intent of my comment… But as some people were offended, there are a lot of people who weren’t.”

The committee’s proposed warning for Oakley says he should “carefully and thoughtfully guard his public and personal actions” as long as he remains a member of the co-op’s board.

At the same Tuesday meeting where any discipline against him will be decided, Oakley will move to get rid of the co-op’s complaint process. The process was created two weeks before a complaint was filed against Oakley.

Based in Johnson City, Pedernales Electric is the largest member-owned electric utility in the country with more than 200,000 members.

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