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Whose fault is it anyway?

Campbell, Brown make their cases

For months, the Minden Press-Herald has chronicled various sides of the story surrounding Claiborne Electric Cooperative’s proposed rural internet deal and the obstacles it has encountered. Tuesday, each side came together for the first time to present its case before a packed meeting room at the Webster Parish Police Jury monthly meeting.

Louisiana Public Service Commissioner Foster Campbell, Claiborne General Manager Mark Brown, and police jury President Jim Bonsall all expressed their disappointment that the fiber optic program will not move forward as originally planned, but where the blame should lie was a matter of some contention.

The proposed $82 million deal, which would allow Claiborne to provide high-speed internet service to the six-parish region where they currently provide electricity, requires a letter of non-opposition from the Public Service Commission if Claiborne wants to leverage the co-op as collateral on the loan.

In March, the police jury approved and sent a letter of support to the commission, urging them to green-light the deal. By July, Claiborne had withdrawn their request for approval, claiming the process was too lengthy and expensive to continue pursuing with little hope of success.

Since then, both Claiborne and Commissioner Campbell have sent explanatory letters to the editor and advertisements to news outlets across the region, the most recent of which ran in the Press-Herald Tuesday. In response to a growing outcry among his constituents, Campbell spoke before the police jury and a full crowd for nearly half an hour.

“I come today to sort of set the record straight,” Campbell said. “Nobody is for high-speed rural internet more than me. Nobody. Since I got elected I’ve been relentless in trying to help it.”

As he told the Press-Herald in March and wrote in his response letter in August, Campbell said his primary concern with Claiborne’s proposal was the risk that its members would carry the burden of the deal’s cost if it failed.

“I owe it to the 26,000 people of Claiborne Electric to make sure that your bills don’t go through the roof,” he said. “So when I was told they wanted to borrow $82 million, I had some questions. I can’t just follow along when I think there could be problems up ahead.”

Campbell’s executive assistant Bill Robertson shared a timeline of Claiborne’s dealings with the commission regarding the fiber optic internet program since representatives first discussed it with Campbell in the summer of 2017. In November, the commission hired Power System Engineering, a Wisconsin-based consulting firm, to conduct a feasibility study of Claiborne’s business model.

This study became perhaps the most critical subject of the ensuing debate between Campbell and Claiborne this summer.

“In March, Mr. [Hez] Elkins, president of the Claiborne Electric board, published a statement in Louisiana Country to all of his members, saying, ‘We are cooperating with the LPSC to make sure this project is viable,’” Robertson said.

“That same month, Claiborne filed its request with our headquarters for the letter of non-opposition.”

In other words, Campbell said, Claiborne did not wait to see the study through before attempting to move forward.

“We wanted an independent study to make a decision, which makes sense,” Campbell said. “That’s all. And they agreed to it. But they didn’t wait. They wouldn’t give us the information to do the study. I’m really disappointed about it.

I want to help them, I just had to ask a few questions to save people some real problems.”

Claiborne General Manager Mark Brown addressed the police jury following the meeting’s agenda, by which point Campbell and Robertson had already left. Brown said Robertson’s timeline failed to mention the costly delays throughout the execution of the study.

“Everything Bill told you was totally accurate,” he said. “Where we get off kilter a little bit though, is we thought if you’re getting a chance to make $37,000 plus expenses, you’d get on the job pretty quickly. Well, we don’t hear anything from [the consulting firm] in November, nothing in December, and nothing in January.”

After contacting the firm again, Brown said he visited them in Wisconsin in February to “get the ball rolling.”

Still, another month went by with no word.

“Lo and behold, by the end of March, we get the first set of questions [to begin the study],” he said.

“Coincidentally, we had already made appointments with all the other commissioners to go visit them.”

Brown said he and Claiborne’s attorney met with the other four members of the commission to explain their position and gauge the chances of the vote going Claiborne’s way.

“Finally we see the chairman [Eric Skrmetta], and he says, ‘Mark, I’m with Foster on this one. I don’t want you to leverage your electric co-op to start this business. Why don’t you go find financing someplace else?’ So when the chairman tells you that, you say ‘OK, we’re barking up the wrong tree.’ So our business decision was, why incur another $20,000 worth of expenses if the end result is going to be no?”

Campbell said it was Claiborne that made the study process longer than necessary by not replying to the questionnaire sent in late March/early April, while Brown claimed the questions came around the time they had already heard from the commissioners that their goal was fruitless.

During his report, Robertson read a few emails from Minden residents who Campbell claimed had been fed misinformation from Brown.

“It seems Mr. Campbell is opposed to this much-needed service because he feels his constituents are too poor to pay for it and Claiborne Electric is too stupid to run it,” one such email read.

Campbell claimed this public perception of his stance on the internet deal was a fiction circulated by Brown to gain support.

“I’m really disappointed in the manager of Claiborne Electric,” he said. “I never said anybody was stupid – Mr. Brown told them I said that. That’s not true. I don’t call anybody stupid. I said that Claiborne Parish is a rural parish, just like Bienville Parish where I came from. There’s a real need for [high speed internet], but it’s not a real prosperous parish. We’re poor parishes up in northwest Louisiana.”

In his reply to Campbell’s “personal attacks,” Brown stood by how he has summarized Campbell’s opinion to the public.
“I know what I heard,” he said. “He says he didn’t call people stupid. He didn’t use the word ‘stupid,’ but there’s a lot of ways to call a person a dummy and still get your idea across. He’s made comments over and over again to our board and to others about how poor we are and that he doubts we’ll be able to pay the bill. Those statements were made. I know what I heard.”

Campbell and Brown each addressed several more accusations from the other side during what amounted to over an hour of talks on the subject. Campbell ended his presentation on the same tone he began it: claiming he needed to make his side of the story clear.

“I just wanted to set the record straight,” he said. “We asked these folks for an independent study, which they agreed to in my office. They’ve paid for these studies before. I’m not about to vote to put 82 million dollars worth of debt on 26 thousand people until I’m absolutely sure it will work.”

Campbell fielded questions from police jury and audiences members before departing. Jury President Jim Bonsall asked if Campbell would have supported the internet endeavor if Claiborne had allowed the study to be completed and the results were in their favor.

“Here’s the deal,” Campbell said. “I would have liked to have seen the study. And if the study was satisfactory, then yeah, I’m all for it.”

Brown assured audience members that Claiborne is still attempting to make the internet service a reality.

“This has not ended our efforts to bring internet to the area,” he said. “We’re working with two outfits right now to try to secure financing to make this project happen. We haven’t given up – we’re just not going to leverage the assets of the co-op to get this done.”

Bonsall read a statement he had prepared summarizing his stance and reaction to the deal’s stalling.

“I am very disappointed because our opportunity for a state-of-the-art fiber optic system is not going to happen,” he said. “I am disappointed professionally, and I am disappointed personally. Most of all, I am disappointed for the citizens of Webster Parish, who have the same problem I do.”

All three men who spoke on the topic Tuesday said they were disappointed for different reasons. Bonsall closed his statement with regret at an opportunity missed.

“I would feel better if I could say with conviction, ‘I hate it didn’t happen, but we did the best we could,’” he said. “But I really don’t believe that.”