A few voices can spark big change

Thursday, February 22, 2018

The next time you begin to think a few voices among the masses cannot make a difference, stop and consider the progress made by members of Utilities District of Western Indiana REMC.

In recent years, a handful of members became aware of some suspected improprieties and took a stand. While some people made accusations they were just “stirring the pot,” recent allegations indicate the accusations may very well be true.

Last April, the ball started moving quickly for change when three new members were elected to the UDWI board of directors. White River Valley’s gymnasium was significantly full as members turned up to vote for change. Not long after the three new board members were voted in, an audit was ordered of the cooperative’s financials.

While we still don’t know the results of the first phase of the audit, it is apparent there was significant information found, which resulted in the termination of CEO Brian Sparks, who had more than three decades of experience with the company.

But, a recent civil suit is shedding more light on what the audit may have uncovered, thus giving some validity to the claims made by a few.

On Dec. 18, 2017, Sparks filed a civil suit, claiming the electric cooperative located near Bloomfield owed him nearly $400,000 in severance pay for “breach of contract and unpaid wages.”

A counterclaim filed by UDWI REMC on Feb. 14, 2018 refutes Sparks’ claim that he is entitled to the payout for severance, vacation time, insurance and more.

The counterclaim states, “Over a period of time yet to be determined, Sparks improperly caused the REMC to incur various personal expenses for himself, members of his family, select friends and others.”

The claim alleges he purchased tens of thousands of dollars worth of tickets to sporting events, used his corporate credit card to spend tens of thousands of dollars in purchases with no supporting documentation and made more than $60,000 worth of checks made out payable to cash.

The counterclaim also alleges more than $1 million dollars worth of “donations,” during which time the cooperative had only budgeted about $250,000. The counterclaim notes UDWI REMC believe the donations were used for personal benefit.

At this point, these are just allegations, but a trial will be set for a later date at which time a jury of Sparks’ peers will make the determination if the civil suit has merit.

This is just one step in the process of making changes that will hopefully result in lower electric rates for UDWI REMC’s member-owners.

Other changes are being made behind the scenes. We have heard of UDWI leaders making changes, which will streamline the work day, and some bigger changes could be in the works with members researching ways to potentially lower utility rates.

Those wishing to continue to be involved in the process of making sure their voices are heard can vote in the upcoming election of board members, which will be much easier this year.

Three districts are up for re-election this year. Candidates who have filed include:

• District 5: Incumbent Roger Shake and Mike Williams

• District 7: Incumbent Bill Watkins and Dax Collins

• District 8: Jeff Doris, Sophie Haywood, Steve Lindsey and Scott Sargent.

We will be writing stories to highlight each of the candidates in the coming weeks before voting begins.

In past years, members had to go to the annual meeting to vote, but this year online voting will be incorporated and paper ballots will be mailed.

Online voting will be from March 10-April 12. Paper ballots will be mailed out starting March 9 and will be accepted through April 12. Voting will also be available at the annual meeting on April 14.