Cook Inlet Region Inc., the most profitable of Alaska's Native corporations, is in the midst of a leadership struggle.
The drama's leading actors were in Kenai Saturday for a shareholder information meeting. An estimated 200 people attended the gathering at Kenai Central High School.
Attendees characterized the meeting as cordial and orderly, despite the hot issues involved.
"It is probably one of the smoothest, nicest meetings I've seen them do," said Bobbie Oskolkoff of Kenai.
"People were very respectful."
Former CIRI chief executive officer Roy Huhndorf came out of retirement this month and joined forces with longtime CIRI management critics to challenge the leadership of current CEO Carl Marrs.
The two sides are backing opposing slates of five candidates each for the 15-member corporate board of directors. The shifting alliances have led to some bitter personal criticisms of those involved.
CIRI shareholders are in a difficult but enviable position. They must chose among some of the state's most talented and experienced Native business leaders.
"They have very good candidates," said Mary Ann Mills of Sterling, whose brother is a board candidate.
"We are fortunate. We are probably the envy of all the Native corporations."
Gabe Juliussen Jr. of Kenai agreed that the outlook is bright.
"As long as we've got good, quality people challenging these seats, I think CIRI is going to keep growing, regardless," he said.
"All the shareholders have great pride in what CIRI has accomplished. That pride is still there."
Despite CIRI's high profits and the upbeat meeting, serious differences underlie the election rivalry. The controversies revolve around long-term fiscal management.
The candidates and others from CIRI management addressed the audience, which had an opportunity to submit written questions.
The audience gave Huhndorf a standing ovation after he spoke and gave loud applause to Bob Rude. Both represent the challengers, who are calling themselves the Alliance for the Future of CIRI.
"There were several CIRI people (the audience) seemed to really like, too," Oskolkoff said.
"... I am confident Roy will get a seat even if the rest of the Alliance doesn't."
In the past, the shareholder information meetings have included opportunities for questions from the floor. Saturday, organizers requested that the questions be submitted in writing on 5-by-7-inch cards. That helped moderate the discourse, but put a damper on the dialogue, attendees said.
"Our culture really mandates being able to get up and speak," Mills said.
Most questions focused on liquidation of assets, bonuses paid to management, the new long-term plan under development, the procedure of having to write the questions and CIRI's involvement with a controversial affiliate, Cook Inlet Energy Supply.
Mills and Oskolkoff also criticized CIRI board president Dr. Terry Simpson.
They called the Arizona physician's remarks the most negative at the meeting. He is the first board chair from outside Alaska, and that makes him inaccessible and out of touch, they said.
"That is one of the things we are not too happy about," said Oskolkoff, who supports the Alliance ticket.
One complication for the meeting was the late release of CIRI's annual report. Normally, shareholders receive copies to review in advance of the meetings. But this year, the report was issued Friday and copies handed out to people as they walked into the meeting.
"It is a very complicated report. It is not easy to read," Oskolkoff said.
"It isn't as clear as some shareholders would like it to be."
Juliussen said the turnout was high due to curiosity and publicity. People were anxious to look at CIRI's financial health. He liked what he saw in the report.
"I think it looks great," he said. "I really don't think shareholders have a lot to worry about."
The shareholders, including more than 800 from the Kenai Peninsula, ultimately will control the board's makeup with their votes.
CIRI is a major economic engine for the region. Its generous shareholder dividends have pumped millions into the peninsula economy, with many of the recipients being elderly or low-income.
It also controls more than half a million acres in the borough and numerous subsidiaries, including Peak Oilfield Services, which has a branch in North Kenai.
The next informational meeting for CIRI shareholders will be May 10 in Phoenix. The annual meeting is planned for June 1 in Anchorage.
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