Santee Cooper is postponing its August board meeting, because it doesn’t know who’s in charge of its board.
But then, no one knows for sure. The top spot on the utility’s board is locked up in a legal fight between two branches of government.
The power struggle began earlier this month when the state Senate sued Gov. Henry McMaster, who had tried to get his pick for board chairman on the job despite legislative reluctance. The governor named his nominee, Charlie Condon, as a temporary fill-in after lawmakers slow-walked hearings for the permanent spot.
The fight has mostly played out in legal filings and dueling statements, but it’s now impacting the work of Santee Cooper, the state-owned utility that provides power to nearly 1 million electricity users across South Carolina.
Utility executives say they’ve decided not to hold a meeting scheduled for Monday while the legal battle plays out. The board typically meets every other month to talk about things like the embattled utility’s budget as it faces a pile of debt and its legal strategy amid a raft of lawsuits and law enforcement investigations.
Those dilemmas and the fight over who holds the reins flow from the same source: its decision to halt construction on a pair of nuclear reactors at the V.C. Summer power plant north of Columbia.
The demise of the $9 billion nuclear project stirred enormous attention among lawmakers to the future of South Carolina’s utility sector. And McMaster has said he thinks the future ought to include the sale of Santee Cooper to a private-sector utility. A new panel studying the idea will meet for the second time on Wednesday.
McMaster has sought to take control of the board since last year, when he pushed out then-chairman Leighton Lord, who was chairman throughout the nuclear project’s final years. He later nominated Condon, a former state attorney general, to fill the opening, but lawmakers demurred.
McMaster essentially forced the question last month when he appointed Condon as a temporary replacement. Senate leaders sued the governor, saying he overstepped his authority, and the state Supreme Court will have to resolve whether the appointment stands.
In a letter to the governor and Senate leaders, the utility said it wasn’t picking sides on who should lead its board. Jim Brogdon, its interim CEO, wrote that it wanted to wait out the "legal uncertainty."
"We are very hopeful that there will be some action, either through the courts or some other means, which will resolve the matter quickly so we may move forward with the meetings," Brogdon wrote.
The governor and the Senate likewise didn't agree on whether the meeting should have been delayed for the court's decision.
The governor's office lashed out at Santee Cooper's decision, reiterating its belief that Condon was properly named the utility's chairman.
"Santee Cooper's rogue actions today represent just another desperate attempt to prevent transparency and accountability," McMaster spokesman Brian Symmes said in a statement. "It's clear that these entrenched executives are more concerned about protecting themselves rather than ratepayers."
Meantime, the Senate's top leaders — Senate President Pro Tem Hugh Leatherman, Majority Leader Shane Massey and Minority Leader Nikki Setzler — said the utility made the right call to sit out the legal uncertainty, calling it "the responsible thing to do."
"We hope that the court will act quickly so that the Board can resume normal activities as soon as possible," the statement said.
For Santee Cooper's part, Brodgon said the utility plans to schedule another meeting as soon as it can — once it knows who runs the board.