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PenLight elections challengers cite lack of awareness as an issue

PenLight Company Board of Director’s election challenger, Glen Bertini, is hoping to create more awareness around the yearly election for the utilities company that serves residents in Gig Harbor, Fox Island and on the Key Peninsula.
PenLight Company Board of Director’s election challenger, Glen Bertini, is hoping to create more awareness around the yearly election for the utilities company that serves residents in Gig Harbor, Fox Island and on the Key Peninsula. Courtesy

Glen Bertini thinks he would make an excellent member of the PenLight Board of Directors. As one of the challengers on this year’s ballot, he thinks his experience as a CEO of Novinium Full-Service Underground Power Cable Partner in Kent, along with his expertise in electrical engineering should give him a leg up on the incumbents, but the campaign process has given him doubts.

“I was familiar with the process from a distance,” Bertini said. “I said, ‘Glen you are an expert in the field and you can be helping your community …’ so I put my hat in the ring and went through the process.”

Bertini had to submit an application which was then given to a committee from the PenLight Company. The committee, formed of PenLight members chosen by current board members, then interviews possible candidates and picks three official candidates from the pool of applications and interviews.

The company's board of directors is comprised of nine members, each with staggered, three-year terms. Each year members are given a chance to vote on three board members. Anyone who lives on the Key Peninsula, Fox Island or Gig Harbor use Penlight as their utility company for electricity and some are also provided water through the company. Residents who receive utilities from Penlight Company are considered “members” of the company.

Every year a leaflet and a ballot is sent to members in the mail, to be completed and returned by mail to the company.

“PenLight is a membership -owned company,” the company’s election leaflet states. “Each member has one vote. Directors are elected at large from PenLight’s service area.”

Incumbents who wish to be reelected must also be reviewed by the election committee. For challengers to qualify for selection, they must:

  • Be an individual who can enter legally binding contracts.

  • Have not been convicted of or plead guilty to a felony five years prior to the election or while serving as a director.

  • Must maintain residency in a PenLight service area.

  • Must use, receive or purchase cooperative services from PenLight at the director’s or challenger’s residential address.

Although the election is every year, less than 20 percent of members usually vote in the election. Bertini says this causes a problem for challengers and has kept the status-quo of the board stagnant.

“When I did a little bit of work … it became pretty clear no challenger every won,” Bertini said. “No challenger has won in over two decades.”

The board of directors get to write and vote on the election rules, some of which Bertini says creates a block for challengers. Bertini said some of the rules inhibits a challenger's chance to have a successful campaign, such as a rule that prohibits challengers from using the words incumbent or reelection during the campaign and a rule which lists the incumbents first in the mailed election leaflet.

“When I read these rules I became angry,” Bertini said. “And I decided to do something about it.”

Bertini began working with Tacoma marketing company Tairis Group to help with his campaign. Stephanie Moore, a client and project manager for the company, said Bertini is working with the other challengers on the ballot to help spread awareness about the election and about the rules they deem unfair to those not already on the board.

“Based on a sampling of Gig Harbor residents, it appears most individuals are either unaware of this election altogether or they lack awareness of the correlation between the PenLight Board of Directors and their energy bill, tossing their ballot without realizing what it is,” Moore said. “The challengers on the ballot in 2018 are Glen Bertini, Dan Merkle and Lee Smith; these individuals are on a mission to initiate positive change for PenLight members, not only to bring transparency to the election process, but to lower members’ energy bills, reduce power outages and ensure worker and public safety.”

Moore said in past years the PenLight Board of Directors required a 15 percent voter turnout for an election to be valid, but a recent move by the board lowered the requirement to only 12 percent.

“Why do that instead of spreading awareness?” Moore said. “Most people receive these leaflets and throw them in the trash. If they do read them they see the incumbents first. Glen is lucky because he actually is mentioned on the first page, but the others are on the back page. So if a member becomes lazy they might not turn around and see there are other challengers.”

While Moore and Bertini believes a lack of knowledge is the reason there is such a low voter turnout for the PenLight yearly election, board president Signo Uddenberg says members are not voting because they are happy with how the board and company has performed in the last few years.

“If you live on the peninsulas, you are not only buying your power from PenLight but you actually are a member and owner of the company,” Uddenberg said. “They are the ultimate body responsible for the governance of the company. People are really satisfied because our performance is pretty amazing.”

Bertini says one of his issues he would like to fix is the number of power outages members face and transparency. Uddenberg said the company has increased its efforts to create a reliable power service.

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“You used to count on being out of power at some point,” Uddenberg said. “We are in the top quartile in the United States according to (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers) ratings, and we have been there over a year. More than 70 percent now of our distribution lines are underground and in areas where we are not we are installing what is called tree wire, which is simply instead of a bare-wire on the pole it’s coated. Kind of like your normal cords in your house. So when a branch falls across the lines, it will prevent a short. In the last few years, people have remarked on how few power outages there have been.”

Uddenberg said Bertini’s information about the longstanding board members is false, and only one member has been on the board for over 20 years.

“We have had a board member lose an election,” Uddenberg said. “It’s not often. Usually it’s a matter of retiring or directors have other pursuits and want to step down. But the longevity issue is that people are happy with how things are being run.”

Uddenberg says challengers don’t need to use incumbent or reelection in their campaigns, and he was confused about why that was a complaint.

“And they are listed positively on the ballot,” Uddenberg said. “They are listed as the nominating committee’s selection. So on a positive phrase, I don’t know how much more a positive spin can be put on that.”

Bertini and other challengers are saying if they are elected they can lower members’ electric bills and create more transparency. Bertini said board meeting minutes are not made public, causing a lack of transparency.

Uddenberg says he doesn’t see how lowering bills or being more transparent is possible.

“If you are a member and you want a copy of the minutes, you can just call up and ask. It’s available,” Uddenberg said. “The meetings are not open to the public on a regular business, but if there is a specific issue, question or complaint that has not been resolved by management … it can be brought to the board. And I can assure the bills are as low as we can possibly make them.”

Ballots were mailed out earlier this month and are due April 30 to PenLight. The board of directors’ election is not an official election with Pierce County or the state.

Bertini said if he is elected he will make it his mission to help spread awareness about the election and how the company is run.

“I don’t know if there is a mechanism where PenLight can pay the state to be a part of their voting process,” Bertini said. “But that is one way to help spread awareness. Even more sensible would be to line up with the November elections.”

Bertini says he hopes more people become involved with the workings of PenLight including the upcoming election.

Danielle Chastaine: 253-358-4155, @gateway_danie

ELECTION FACTS

The PenLight Company holds an election each year for three positions on its Board of Directors. There must be at least two candidates for each position.

The candidates can be either incumbents from the board or challengers. They are selected by a committee of PenLight members formed by the board of directors. Members, which are customers of PenLight, get one vote each year to elect the board of directors.

This year includes:

  • L. Paul Alvestad - incumbent: Alvestad is the current vice president of the board and a lifelong Gig Harbor resident. Alvestad’s father also served on the board for 29 years. He has been a practicing lawyer since 1980 and owns a Gig Harbor law firm.

  • Debra Ross - incumbent: Ross has been a board member since 2011 and has lived in Gig Harbor since 1966. She is part of the historic Ross family from Gig Harbor. Ross worked for the Peninsula School District for 18 years before finding a career in local real estate.

  • Nick Markovich - incumbent: Markovich has been a member of the board since 2000. He was the past president of the board. Markovich has spent time serving on the Gig Harbor City Council and is a member of the local Kiwanis Club. Markovich has his doctorate in law and maintains a law practice in Gig Harbor.

  • Glen Bertini - challenger: Bertini is a longtime resident of Gig Harbor and recently moved to Fox Island. He is the CEO of Novinium in Kent. He has 15 years of boardroom experience in electrical distribution. Bertini founded Novinium in 2003, which now employs over 300 workers.

  • Dan Merkle - challenger: Merkle was born in Boise, Idaho and raised a family in Oregon before moving to Fox Island. He served on the board of Recreational Equipment Inc. for six years. Merkle was the founding CEO of Lexipol, a leading provider of policy and compliance guidelines to public safety agencies.

  • Lee Smith - challenger: Smith has been a PenLight Company member since 2007 when he moved to Fox Island. Smith worked in the high-tech industry for 30 years until he started at Hewlett Packard in 2006. He is currently a real estate broker for Windermere Real Estate. He is a member of the Gig Harbor Rotary Club and the Downtown Waterfront Alliance.

Ballots are due to PenLight by 4:30 p.m. April 30. The election results will be announced at the May 7 board of directors meeting. Each director serves a three-year term. Ballots were mailed to members and a 12 percent voter turnout is needed to create a quorum to validate the election. Anyone requiring a replacement ballot can call Peninsula Light Member Services at (253) 857-5950 to have a ballot reissued and placed in the mail.

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