Ran into an old friend Monday evening at Food Lion. She backed away as soon as she saw me.

"I can’t be seen talking to you," she said.

She works for Citizens Telephone Cooperative and the heat is on to find out who is talking to me about the company’s financial problems and threats of layoffs and service cutbacks.

Several Citizens employees have told me that they have been ordered by their supervisors not to talk to me about the recent company meeting where employees were told of the company’s mounting problems. They fear losing their jobs if they are identified as the source of information published here.

I find this disturbing. Citizens is a publicly-owned telephone cooperative. We, the customer-members of the cooperative, are also the owners and we deserve to know what is happening with the company that provides telephone, wireless, Internet and television service to Floyd County.  Employees should not be intimidated and forced to work in fear.

While management has failed to return my phone calls seeking their side of the story, they agreed Monday to talk to the editor of The Floyd Press. I guess we will find out on Thursday what their spin is on the situation..

And while Citizens goes to great lengths to keep their problems secret from the customer/owners they serve, their precarious financial situation is no secret within the telecommunications industry. Weekend guests of musician Bernie Coveney included an executive of AT&T who told Coveney that Citizens’ problems are well known and the topic of much discussion.

I called a telecommunications lobbyist I know in Washington Monday and he told me that the word within the industry is that Citizens is strapped for cash and hemorrhaging because of over-expansion and bad management decisions.

Here’s what iLocus, which monitors IP-related issues for the industry says about Citizens and its IPTV deployment:

The biggest challenge has been the expense of deploying IPTV. Being a small company and not having the deep pockets to afford leading edge technology has been the biggest challenge, as well as the buying power of ordering large quantities of set top boxes. At the same time, working through the uncharted territories, experimenting with unproven technology and trying to figure out what works with the company’s network has also been a major challenge related to IPTV.

Citizens was once considered the darling of the telecommunications industry.  Now it is the subject of speculation about an uncertain future.

But at the moment, the primary concern of Citizens’ management appears to be finding ways to keep the lid on the situation instead of being honest and forthright with their customer/owners.  They want to know who is talking to me and some have tried to blame the employees who work in the Citizens retail office next door to Blue Ridge Muse at the Village Green.

They’re wrong. The ladies who work there have not discussed the situation with me. They don’t have to. Many other Citizens’ employees have come forward. They tell a sad story of a dysfunctional company that has lost focus and the trust of its employees. It is a story that must, and will, be told.