After over eight hours of executive session meetings on Tuesday, Lubbock's Electric Utility Board voted to place CEO Gary Zheng on paid leave and begin a search for a new Director of Utilities.
The vote passed 6 to 3.
Zheng will be on paid leave for 30 days. General Counsel Todd Kimbrough will serve as interim director. Kimbrough has been instructed to reach an amicable agreement with Zheng to facilitate his departure from LP&L.
The motion was made by EUB member Clayton Isom.
Board member Emilio Abeyta argued that putting Zheng on leave at this time sends the wrong message to the public.
"I do not believe that Dr. Zheng is the problem," Abeyta said.
Vice-Chairman Jerry Bell said that he agreed with Mr. Abeyta.
EUB Chairman Greg Taylor said, "What we talked about today switched my vote. At some point we have to take steps to address the seriousness of some of those things and the majority of us felt at this point this was the proper action to take.
"I believe that we have a strong employee base, I believe we have a strong board. We just hired a new assistant director of utilities and so I believe we will have a strong employee group and a strong board going forward."
EUB member Charlie Dunn said, "I think it was just a culmination of all the factors that have happened over the last year and a half and the vote happened and we didn't know how the vote would come out until it occurred. It's time to move forward. We need a new CEO to move us into 2019 and that's what we're headed towards."
Lubbock Mayor Glen Robertson said, "The board looked at the facts, they listened to information and they made a decision based on those facts.
"I think everybody, even the folks that dissented, we're all ready to move forward. The finger-pointing and animosity, it's time to place all of that behind us and just move forward and try to pull everybody back together."
"It has not slowed down the process of 2019," Robertson said. "Before we went into the discussions of employment we spent almost four hours this morning with the consultants over 2019 and what the plans are and what we need to do and what we don't need to do - so even in the midst of all of this, this board has taken care of that business. They're looking to 2019 and trying to make sure they solve that problem."
If Zheng's departure is "without cause", it will kick in a severance agreement that gives Zheng two years salary plus accumulated vacation time and benefits. That agreement was executed in 2012 by the EUB but not ratified by the Lubbock City Council.
Dr. Zheng joined Lubbock Power & Light in 1997 and became its CEO in 2005. In the last year, his leadership and communication ability has been questioned.
In June 2013, the utility under-billed almost half of its users in what was described as a software glitch. At the same time, at the recommendation of LP&L staff, the city council had raised utility rates. That rate increase, combined with the normal increase in usage seen in summer months, provoked a grass roots uprising that called itself "I hate LP&L." Protests were staged outside EUB meetings and concerns were raised at the city council level.
By last fall, EUB members Marc McDougal and Clayton Isom were seeking to remove Zheng as CEO. The vote to remove Zheng was not successful and McDougal was not reappointed to the Electric Utility Board by the city council.
Zheng's woes grew as questions were raised about alleged dishonesty with his board over his handling of bids for 2019 power generation, but Zheng was cleared in the subsequent investigation.
That RFP and the responses were eventually thrown out by the EUB. No subsequent RFP has been released.
Present EUB Vice-Chairman Jerry Bell expressed confidence in Gary Zheng at a Lubbock City Council meeting in February. He noted that the Ashcroft report had found no illegal dealings on the part of LP&L staff. The report, conducted by the Ashcroft law firm, was incomplete in its scope and did not interview sworn witnesses. Mayor Glen Robertson has repeatedly called the report a "whitewash."
Zheng has come under fire again recently amid employee complaints and concerns about the price tag of the Ashcroft report. The last three EUB meetings were taken up mostly with discussion of Dr. Zheng's employment status.
Last week Chief Financial officer Andy Burcham revealed to City Manager James Loomis and EUB Chairman Greg Taylor that he had taken concerns over old invoices from E3 Consulting to the FBI.
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