Flashback to summer 2001 — I was headed from Reagan National Airport to Wichita, Kansas, to speak at the Kansas Municipal Utilities conference. I was just months into my tenure as a “government relations representative” (i.e., lobbyist) for APPA and was tasked with giving a legislative update to the group. A major electricity crisis had occurred over the previous year, and given the complexities of what was then known as the “Western Electricity Crisis” and its effects on public power, and that I was still very much on a learning curve regarding the nuances of the industry, I wrote out my entire speech. And I read it — yes, verbatim.
I should have known then that I was destined to remain part of public power for the long haul because I only have good memories from that event. The attendees did not make me feel bad for the ridiculous novice that I was, but instead made me feel welcome and knowledgeable. During the conference, I met Colin Hansen, executive director of KMU, for the first time. While he was then a full 20 years younger than the average public power leader at the time, it was obvious that he was highly respected and ran an excellent event.
Flash forward almost exactly 20 years to last week, and I was once again preparing to speak at the KMU conference in the aftermath of a crisis in the electric sector. This time, it was a middle-of-the-country crisis caused by Winter Storm Uri rather than by a problematic retail market in California manipulated by Enron. And, significantly, Kansas public power utilities were meeting at a conference in person for the first time since the coronavirus pandemic started. It was great to be in Wichita, seeing the Kansas public power members in person. It was much more meaningful than ever before. It was also great seeing Colin Hansen, the APPA board chair-elect and still head of KMU, once again in his element. He has more gray hair (as do I), but still runs a great meeting and understands the many small towns where public power thrives in his state. He will be an incredible chair of the APPA Board of Directors when his time comes in June. And, this time, I did not read my remarks to the group verbatim. Now that’s progress!
I was able to see other APPA board members from the region and make my way beyond Wichita to visit McPherson, Kansas, where I visited KMU’s training center and got a tour of the historic offices of McPherson Board of Public Utilities from Tim Maier, McPherson BPU’s general manager. Small-town Kansas is thriving and undergirded by reliable public power utilities like McPherson BPU, despite the impacts of Winter Storm Uri. It was an amazing time and I was so grateful to be on the road again to revisit a 20-year relationship with KMU.
Before heading to Kansas, I had the privilege of beginning my week in Norman, Oklahoma, where the Oklahoma Municipal Alliance also held its first in-person conference since the pandemic began. This is another great event, and one I had not been to before. For whatever reason, during my previous tenure at APPA, the timing or other factors had precluded my attendance. What a fun group, led by Tom Rider, OMA’s executive director! Like Colin, he runs an excellent meeting, with interesting motivational, policy-focused, and technical presentations. I also loved the cornhole tournament that kicked off the event – with public power utility staff and vendors vying against each other. The attendees were even tolerant of my Texas roots, a serious concession from Oklahomans!
While neither of these were as yet completely “normal” as compared to pre-pandemic times, the in-person interaction was incredibly gratifying, nonetheless. I look forward to seeing more public power members as the year progresses and very much appreciate being included in these two special events last week.