Santee Cooper: “We should run like a business”. Committee Co-Chair on trust: “You burned it””

Blog by Frank Knapp Jr., President and CEO of the South Carolina Small Business Chamber of Commerce.

December 19, 2020

This past week Santee Cooper rolled out a new defense for its actions that have been roundly criticized by members of the SC legislature—they are a business enterprise.

“We should run like a business,” the state agency’s Chief Public Affairs Officer and General Counsel Pamela Williams told the SC House Santee Cooper Ad Hoc Committee at its December 16, 2020, meeting.

In addition to Ms. Williams, Santee Cooper was also represented at this important meeting by the agency’s acting chairman Dan Ray and Treasurer Shawan Gillians.

While Santee Cooper now wants its actions to be viewed through a business lens, notably absent from appearing in person or via Zoom before the House Committee, which will play a key role in determining the agency’s future, was Santee Cooper’s President and CEO Mark Bonsall.  The Committee was told that Mr. Bonsall was in Arizona with his family.

Committee Co-Chair Kirkman Finlay expressed his frustration with Mr. Bonsall’s avoidance of the meeting:

“We are here discussing the fate of Santee Cooper and it is incredibly interesting to me that the CEO of the company…is on holiday…The most highly paid state agency head has chosen not to attend a meeting to discuss the potential of his agency.”

Mr. Finlay saw a very significant message being sent to the House by Mr. Bonsall:

“When the most highly paid state employee, other than a football coach, can’t attend a 3-hour Zoom meeting with the rest of us, a very clear status delineation has been made.”

Mr. Finlay’s questioning of Ms. Gillians, regarding Santee Cooper’s recent decision to take on $100 million in new debt instead of using $85 million in cash it had on hand, torpedoed the agency’s hope that its action would be viewed as a good business decision (watch the 8-minute exchange).

Committee Co-Chair Leon Stavrinakis expressed his concern about Santee Cooper’s leadership culture as reflected in Ms. Williams’ comment to Mr. Finlay regarding the agency’s decision to take on new debt.

“I understand you don’t agree with what we did but we do believe it was the prudent thing to do and we did it,” Ms. Williams told Mr. Finlay.

Mr. Stavrinakis:

“I feel compelled to point out that Santee Cooper had that kind of trust and ability to act and you burned it with a series of decisions.  And it gives me great concern that nothing has changed.  The leadership culture just isn’t going to change.”

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