EPUD iPAD: Huh?

There’s an unanswered question inside the recent management drama at Emerald People’s Utility District. If you haven’t followed it over the past few months, here’s a quick recap.

In September, EPUD’s board of directors put General Manager Scott Coe on probation for six months. Coe offered his resignation, but the board declined. They also censured one of their board members, forbidding Katherine Schacht from representing EPUD at conferences or having any contact with Coe outside of board meetings.

In October, we found out why. An unidentified EPUD employee had distributed to each board member (and also to this newspaper) over ten hours of recorded conversations between Coe and various board members, captured by the company’s phone system. Infighting between EPUD’s leaders was now on the record. The board again declined Coe’s offer to resign.

In November, EPUD board president Kevin Parrish announced a termination agreement with Coe, effective December 31. Coe agrees not to sue the utility company or its directors. In return, EPUD will pay Coe $124,261 in a severance package that amounts to six months’ salary and a scheduled contribution to his retirement plan, plus his EPUD-issued iPad.

That’s the story. Now the question, which you may have also been asking yourself: What’s with the iPad?

The salary and retirement payments are spelled out in Coe’s employment contract, but his contract does not contemplate custody of a personal electronic device. We learned later that Coe’s earlier offer to resign also specified his desire to keep his iPad.

I have an iPad. If I had to give it up for some reason, I probably would buy another one and transfer my files and apps onto the new one. It’s not the iPad itself that I wonder about here. It just seems out of proportion in this context.

If a teenager was being grounded for bad grades, losing an iPad might come up. But when an executive agrees to walk away with an eighth of a million dollars, why even mention an electronic gadget? That seems silly. Coe’s own estimate of the iPad’s value is $150. He told me it is a “twice-used” model, repurposed after another EPUD employee left the company.

Rather than putting his staff in the awkward position of determining whether their boss should keep his iPad, Coe told me, “I thought I’d just make it easy on everyone and add it to the exit package.”

It still seemed weirdly specific to me. If Coe had asked for the company’s automated recording system as part of his settlement, that would have made more sense. Part of Coe’s legacy will be the curtailing of those company-wide recordings. (I don’t know about you, but “This call may be monitored or recorded for quality assurance” has taken on a whole new meaning for me after this incident.)

I called EPUD board president Parrish, hoping he might shed some light on the exchange. He called me back, clearly exhausted from the whole controversy. He was frank: “I don’t know why he wanted the iPad so much. In the great scheme of things, it didn’t seem reasonable to fight it. I just really wanted to get it over with.”

I started to wonder whether Apple’s product placement strategy was no longer limited to movies and television shows. Is the richest company in the world now planting references to its products in employment contracts and news stories?

I asked John Stark, KLCC’s general manager, about how his station takes advantage of the iPad’s lure. Every time our NPR affiliate asks listeners to contribute, they are enticed with a chance to win an iPad. Sure enough, Stark confirmed it.

“Public radio listeners covet iPads,” Stark told me. “It’s the most desirable reward we offer for pledging, even surpassing the ‘Nina Totenbag’ and Carl Kassel’s voice on your answering machine. During our December Radiothon, KLCC will again offer iPads to lucky listeners.”

Thanks to his negotiated severance package, Coe won’t be among those coveting an iPad from KLCC. But he might wish he could have Carl Kassel’s voice — really, anyone’s but his — on his phone machine.

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs