Paying Lip Service to Co-op Principles
Addressing the role of the co-op’s board of directors in the October issue of the Wisconsin Energy Cooperative News, Dunn Energy Cooperative general manager James Hathaway wrote: “Cooperative principle No. 2 talks about democratic member control. It says that men and women serving as elected representatives are accountable to the membership.”
In Mr. Hathaway’s General Manager’s Report presented at the annual meeting last March, he wrote: “As a cooperative, control of the organization is placed in the hands of the membership who actively participate in setting the cooperative’s policies and decision making.”
That’s what is called “talking the talk.” Sadly, however, when it comes to co-op democracy and democratic member participation, what we have is a co-op board and management that come up short “walking the walk.”
Below, I share what I’ve learned through my experience trying to make sense of our rural electric co-op’s inner workings. I also share my conclusion, namely that that the time has come to challenge its complacent, institutional inertia.
Voting in a Vacuum
In a few weeks, the member-owners of the Dunn Energy Cooperative will be given the opportunity to vote on candidates for the co-op’s board of directors. Three of the nine director positions are contested each year on a rotating basis. A director, therefore, serves a three-year term and is allowed up to four terms (12 years). Nearly all directors run for re-election as incumbents when their terms are up.
This year is no exception, with three incumbents running for re-election against three challengers. How does a co-op member-owner choose between the two candidates on his/her ballot? Well, each candidate is allowed a brief bio and statement of priorities on the ballot itself. Generally speaking, in the past, this has not been much to choose from, particularly since the statements have been typically formulaic, repetitive and obvious (e.g., “reliable service at reasonable cost”).
So, again, how does a member/owner choose between a challenger and an incumbent?
Because the incumbent has been voting on various issues for the past three years, checking the records for his votes would be an obvious strategy. Where would those records logically be? In the meeting minutes, of course.
And where are the meeting minutes? On the co-op website, one would assume. But guess again. They are filed away in the co-op’s administrative offices. Why do they not appear on the co-op’s website? Go there, and you’ll see that meeting agendas are missing, as well.
Well, in a discussion of this issue at a recent board meeting, the District 5 director said that posting a meeting agenda and the minutes on the co-op website would be unfair because not every co-op member has access to the internet, and all members must be treated equally.
But, hello: Every library in the county has free internet access. And by that reasoning, the co-op’s website itself is unfair and should be taken down. For that director, treating every member equally apparently means keeping them all equally in the dark. Equally disturbing, none of his fellow directors offered a dissenting word.
The Mystery of Co-op Board Meetings
So, back to accessing the minutes. You request a form on which you ask to review the minutes, and then submit it to co-op management who, in turn, passes the request to the board of directors. Then you wait patiently for the next few weeks for the board to consider the request at their next monthly meeting.
Hurrah! The board grants your request. You truck on over to the co-op offices where you are given the minutes by the general manager who requires you to review them in his office and in his presence.
Some might find this a bit intimidating but, what the heck, it’s worth it to become an informed voter by learning how the various board incumbents running for re-election have voted on issues during their most recent three-year term. EXCEPT! No matter how many hours you strain your eyes examining those minutes, they contain no vote totals for or against an issue, no information on which director made a motion to take action, which director seconded, or how each member then voted.
Instead you read again and again, “A lengthy discussion was held and a number of questions were asked and answered. A motion was made, seconded and approved.”
No help there in evaluating a candidate and deciding who best deserves your vote. Then you consider how much of your time has been wasted by a lengthy process that yields absolutely no information. Zip. Gosh, you could have flipped a coin between the two candidates weeks ago and saved yourself all the hassle. Perhaps this explains why voter turnout in director elections is south of ten percent.
But you HAVE discovered something: Dunn Energy’s management and board of directors, whose skills guiding the co-op’s energy and financial matters largely appear competent, has a puzzling dark side regarding co-op governance. Away from energy issues, they have sadly lost their way, drifting into a paternalistic mindset that supports policies which limit member input into its decision-making.
Legal Rights Lost, No Votes Recorded
Imagine this scenario regarding the recent bylaw change: A detailed board meeting agenda is posted on the co-op’s website which makes clear that the board will be discussing the pros and cons of a bylaw change that would grant co-op management the power to refuse to allow a member with a grievance to bring suit in a court of law. This bylaw change will instead shunt him/her into mediation and arbitration (notorious for favoring the corporate or institutional party over the individual).
The board invites member comment before taking action, either at its monthly meeting or at a separate listening session. Let’s say two members, both military veterans, attend the meeting and state that one of the reasons they served their country was to defend and protect the rights and principles that our nation was founded on — among them the right to seek redress for grievances via the courts. They strongly oppose giving up these rights, even if, as management asserts, it will result in a small discount on the co-op’s insurance premium. The promised discount amounts to a few dollars per member — hardly worth giving up one’s legal rights.
Now, if that scenario had really occurred, perhaps some of the board members would have had second thoughts about recommending the bylaw changes to the membership. And if their individual votes were recorded and included in minutes posted on the co-op website, the membership would have some information to consider when deciding who to vote for in upcoming director elections.
The unfortunate fact is that a huge reservoir of fresh ideas and perspectives resides in our co-op membership, but is mostly ignored by the board of directors. They apparently do not want to be bothered by member input because they are confident they know best.
Secrecy … Why?
At the same board meeting where transparency was discussed and dismissed regarding posting meeting agendas and minutes on the co-op website, one director stated that the board could even call for a secret vote if it wished, putting the final nail in the coffin of accountability.
A secret vote would mean that even if a lowly member-owner jumped through all the hoops (there are a few, but that’s another story), in order to attend a board meeting (where he or she would only be allowed as a mute observer), he or she would still have no idea how each member voted.
Finally, a third director was asked point-blank some time ago how the directors voted when they decided on recommending bylaw changes to the membership that seriously limited member legal rights and weakened local control of the co-op. His answer: “Oh no, I can’t tell you that.”
Vote for a Change
Bottom line: When the DEC ballots arrive in our mailboxes in early March, member-owners of the co-op will have an important decision to make. They will have the opportunity to support board challengers who, rather than insulating themselves from scrutiny and escaping accountability for their actions, really believe that an effective democracy depends on informed and engaged voters, and who are determined to make such information transparent and easily accessible to all members.
Three such individuals have come forward to challenge non-responsive incumbents:
Douglas Owens-Pike in District 2
Jeffrey Gasteyer in District 3
Lisa Pelnar in District 5
Please give them your vote. And get involved. Now is the time to begin taking back our co-op.
Submitted by Chuck Boyer
Dunn Energy Cooperative Member
Wheeler, WI 54772