- Associated Press - Sunday, May 3, 2015

JOHNSON CITY, Texas (AP) - The leaders of a Central Texas utility company say its operations are more transparent and efficient a few years after ratepayers discovered excessive pay for executives, their relatives and no-show employees.

A turning point for Pedernales Electric Cooperative was a 2007 protest by members that preceded the scrutiny of state authorities and later the criminal convictions of two top executives. One of the executives, former General Manager Bennie Fuelberg, once considered one of the highest-paid electric utility officials in the country, had been quietly awarded a five-year $2 million deferred compensation package on top of his annual pay, according to the Austin American-Statesman (http://atxne.ws/1E6Lgjv ).

Fuelberg in 2010 was convicted by a Gillespie County jury of theft, money laundering and fiduciary misapplication of property.

It also was revealed that an “emeritus” program offered retired directors lifetime pay and benefits, and executives and their spouses tallied about $700,000 in co-op credit card charges from 2002 to 2006. The charges included first-class airfare, bookings at five-star hotels and Celine Dion concert tickets in Las Vegas, according to the newspaper. The 17-member board, meanwhile, selected its own members rather than having an election involving ratepayers.

The co-op is now marking five years being led by an elected seven-member board. Leaders of the Johnson City-based utility, west of Austin, argue Pedernales now fixes outages faster, has pared back an excess of employees, and gets high marks in customer-satisfaction ratings.

“The co-op is in much better shape than it was back when Bennie Fuelberg and his self-perpetuating board were feasting off the members by overpaying themselves and having all these perks,” said John Watson, one of the leaders of the 2007 revolt. “We are far better off.”

But state Sen. Troy Fraser, a member of the co-op, which is the largest member-owned utility in the U.S., said that its cost of power still exceeds the statewide average and more work needs to be done.

“They fixed 99 percent of the things people were concerned about,” he said, explaining that there still appears to be “excessive overhead.”

State Rep. Tony Dale is another co-op member who has pushed for reforms and helped the utility chart a new course.

“This was an organization that was previously very insular and very closed off from any transparency,” he said.

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Information from: Austin American-Statesman, http://www.statesman.com

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