Voters generally give political incumbents the benefit of the doubt. When performance doesn’t meet expectations, the people rightly ask questions.
Over the years, the Omaha Public Power District has served the region well. The public utility provides dependable, affordable, reliable power to its ratepayer-owners. Despite recent fee and rate increases, OPPD customers still pay less than most. And the utility deserves credit for avoiding catastrophe during the 2011 Missouri River flood.
But federal regulators in recent years have exposed some warts, sparking questions about OPPD’s attention to long-term maintenance and employee training.
That’s where the OPPD board comes in. Three board seats are up for election this year. Subdivisions 1 and 2 drew large primary fields, while both candidates in Subdivision 3 will advance to the fall general election.
In Subdivision 2, voters would do well to ask incumbent Anne McGuire what is being done to correct mistakes. Based on her record, McGuire deserves the chance to make her case this fall.
Her strongest challenger is Jeff Lux, a prosecutor with the Douglas County Attorney’s Office who has previous experience in the Nebraska Attorney General’s Office and in the Army Reserves.
Their advancement would give voters the best discussion about the utility’s past performance and future direction.
McGuire has served four terms and heads the board’s nuclear oversight efforts. She supported the decision by CEO Gary Gates to bring in the outside help of Exelon Corp. to help run Fort Calhoun Nuclear Station.
McGuire acknowledges that OPPD has work to do to rebuild public trust, but she says more has been done than people see. She says there is a plan in place to train OPPD employees to take over once they have learned from Exelon.
Lux understands well how to navigate bureaucracy in the public’s interest. He says he is willing to challenge the status quo. He says the board needs to provide more oversight, accountability and transparency.
In Subdivision 1, since the race has no incumbent, the choice comes down to candidates’ temperament, vision and accomplishments.
On that score, voters would do well to advance Millard-area business owner Travis Freeman and Omaha real estate broker Rich Hurley. Both would bring solid credentials to the fall campaign and a proper focus on ratepayer interests.
Freeman says he wants to hold down rate increases. His main focus is fostering the stability and predictability of electricity rates to help spur economic development.
He understands that a utility as dependent on coal as OPPD cannot shift quickly or easily to alternatives but says the board should be planning more publicly for the transition to cleaner coal, natural gas power and renewables.
Freeman stresses the need for the board to hold management accountable for its history of poor communication with employees, which he says is at the root of many of the utility’s problems.
Hurley puts his greatest emphasis on the need to cut costs. He says the utility should start with the idea that it can trim 5 percent from its budget, just as he has from his own business.
He says that only by setting realistic cost-cutting targets will the utility be able to keep electricity rates affordable. His first target would be management retirement benefits and compensation, which he says are too generous. Employee benefits, too, warrant a closer look.
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Ratepayers need sound representation on the OPPD board.
They would have the opportunity to ensure that if voters advance Travis Freeman and Rich Hurley in Subdivision 1 and Anne McGuire and Jeff Lux in Subdivision 2.