GLASGOW – Glasgow Mayor Harold Armstrong requested in November that a member of the Glasgow Electric Plant Board's board of directors recuse herself from voting on whether the utility should approve a new, 20-year contract with the Tennessee Valley Authority, which is the wholesale power provider for the utility.
He asserted in a Nov. 21 letter to Libby Pruitt Short that there was some “public discussion about whether you are vulnerable to influence in your duties” for the board. The mayor said that that situation was further complicated because “you expressed some incorrect information” in a recent podcast.
Armstrong did not specify in the letter any reasoning behind the perceived vulnerability nor did he specify what information from the podcast was incorrect. He was presumably referring to a Nov. 11 podcast called Convergence, which is a joint effort of WCLU Radio and the Glasgow Daily Times, for which Short and board chairman Tag Taylor were interviewed, with the proposed TVA contract being a major topic of the discussion.
“As a result, I respectfully request that you recuse yourself from the vote on the proposed twenty (20) year agreement with TVA, at least until the consultant reports its findings,” Armstrong wrote. “Thank you for your service thus far as a Director. I know it has involved personal sacrifice.”
Short is the newest member of the board, starting in April and filling an unexpired term for which the mayor originally appointed Mark Biggers, who resigned after one meeting.
Ron Hampton, attorney for the GEPB, in response to Armstrong's letter to Short, sent a letter the following day to City Attorney Danny Basil essentially asking him to cite “the specific section including subsections of the Ethical Code of Conduct Mayor Armstrong believes may have been violated or would disqualify Mrs. Short from participating in board decisions.”
On Nov. 25, Basil replied that the mayor was not accusing Short of ethical violations or of being disqualified to vote.
“Someone the Mayor believed was her friend had told him she was receiving a lot of pressure regarding the upcoming vote,” the city attorney wrote. “The Mayor had heard the podcast in which she participated and was aware that it had some false information. He did not know if someone had foisted that information on her or if she intended to relay false information. Then there was the issue of the [TVA] contract being put on the agenda for a vote on [Nov. 26] after the board had agreed to wait for the consultant.
“The Mayor just wanted Ms. Short to know that there was an alternative if she felt conflict or pressure as to her vote at that time.”
Hiring a consultant?
The mayor has said on more than one occasion since that October meeting that the board agreed to hire a consultant. It did not.
At that meeting, board Chairman Tag Taylor said, “The more information we have, the better,” noting that he and Short had reached out to six other local power companies who are fueled by TVA to explore some of those pros and cons.
“I think in the spirit of making sure we have all the information necessary to make a good, informed decision, I think this is something we should certainly consider,” Taylor said.
He and the mayor had each procured proposals from potential firms to do the consulting work, and he appointed Short and D.T. Froedge as a committee to consider the proposals and/or whether to seek more.
Short noted that while it may be part of their due diligence to “explore options,” she asked about where the money would come from, with price estimates in the $90,000 to $150,000 range, and Taylor said he intended to ask the city to help pay for it.
“At the end of the day, if we absorb it and there has to be some little charge [to customers to cover it], we're the ones that are going to take the heat for that, when it's going to benefit everybody,” she said, adding she thought it was fair for the city government to help with the cost.
Superintendent Billy Ray confirmed it would be considered a fixed cost that would have to be factored into customer charges.
No formal vote was taken on the intent to hire a consultant or even on the committee's work, though the consensus appeared to favor the latter.
The council later approved a resolution, amended from what was originally proposed, to cover $50,000 or 50 percent, whichever was less, and “encourage” the GEPB to hire a consultant. The original wording also stated the GEPB board had agreed to hire a consultant and wait for its recommendation before making a decision on the contract, but that the two directors had said on the podcast that a consultant wasn't needed. It also alleged that “false information” was provided during this podcast “about what it would cost to connect to nearby power sources and how far away said sources of power were, indicating, at best that they had made a decision in advance based on incorrect information.”
That and virtually all the rest of the original wording, which some council members perceived as biased against TVA, was stripped from the final version that was approved 7-5.
Short says she received the mayor's letter via email the morning of Nov. 21. It was later that same day that a video produced for a local publishing company -- and days later a subsequent report in a printed publication for that same company -- pointed to a relationship between Short's son and the woman who was involved in a traffic crash in July when the Nissan Pathfinder she was driving struck the bicycle Ray was operating. He suffered multiple significant injuries from the crash.
Short told the Glasgow Daily Times on Thursday she has known the woman involved in the wreck, Ashley Saltsman, identified by police at the time of the wreck as Ashley Case, since she was in high school with Short's oldest daughter, but at the time the wreck occurred, she hadn't seen her since the high school graduation. She also knew Saltsman was friends with her son, but that was all at the time.
“They were not dating at that time. They did not start officially dating until Sept. 11, and they're not dating now,” Short said, later adding that aspect of the relationship ended Sunday, but it didn't have anything to do with the GEPB issue.
Short said neither her son nor Saltsman ever spoke to her at all about or implied how she should vote on anything related to the GEPB; therefore, she had never felt any pressure from either of them or anyone else in connection with them or otherwise about that contract vote, so, by extension, she never told any “friends” or anyone else she was feeling that anyone was attempting to influence her.
“My kids [and I] have no discussions about the EPB,” she said.
The mayor, in the video, states that he had reached out to Short to check on the influence issue.
“That is incorrect,” she said. “The mayor never reached out to me concerning anything to do with any conflict, pressure, anything.”
Short said the only inquiry she got about that from him was the letter suggesting she recuse herself.
The mayor, on Wednesday and Thursday, declined to be interviewed by the Daily Times about matters concerning the GEPB.
At the November board meeting, as it came time to discuss the hiring of a consultant, Taylor moved to table that subject, because he felt the action taken by the city council was improper and that it had put “some undue influence on a couple of board members that may feel like they don't have the opportunity to vote the way that their conscience allows them to vote, so I'd like a little bit of a cooling-off period.”
That motion to delay carried by a majority, and subsequently, so did a motion to go ahead and approve the new TVA contract.
It has also been suggested by the mayor and others that the fact Short expressed resistance early on to a 20-year term with TVA but eventually voted in favor of it was an indicator she may have been unduly influenced.
Short told the Daily Times educating herself about all sides of an issue is her responsibility as a board member and something she makes a point to do, "not just try find what will substantiate your preconceived notions" that someone starting a role on a board may have.
Once you do that, it's very easy to change an opinion on things based on all the data in front of you, she said, and she has done this with the contract issue, and that is why she ultimately believed it was the best option, especially after the board was advised in a closed session by a local economic development official that a major industry recruitment effort would be dashed if the electric plant board even discussed changing power providers.
– A second portion of this report will explore the question of whether incorrect or false information was provided during the Convergence podcast.