As we began researching the implications of DEC's recent bylaw changes, we learned that we are by no means the only rural electric cooperative facing challenges.
While rural electric cooperatives started out in the 1930s as community-minded, democratic organizations committed to addressing their members most pressing needs, over the past 30 years or so, many co-ops have taken a turn for the worse.
In the articles below, you can read about how out of touch, insular, and self-serving some rural-electric boards have become, and how "under the thumb" of the fossil-fuel industry many have fallen.
Sadly, between an increasing array of corruption charges and a continuous eroding of local member controls, many rural electric cooperatives no longer operate with the transparency and trust members have come to expect.
This has resulted in a growing cooperative reform movement in which members are taking back control and responsibility for their local electric cooperatives, and holding irresponsible and out-of-touch leaders to account.
While DEC is still operating better than many rural cooperatives, and does a great job minimizing outages, managing rate hikes, and keeping its bottom line strong, it definitely has some opportunities to improve.
When we went to learn more about how our co-op operates, we found it was far more closed off to members than we would have expected.
As members, here's just a little of what concerns us ...
Lack of Transparency and Member Access to Information
If you want to review any DEC records or documents, you have to request them weeks in advance, and the board of directors has to approve your request.
If you are granted permission to see requested records, you may be required to review them on site at DEC headquarters — even if that takes hours or days.
You are prohibited from making copies or taking pictures of any documents (even documents that have been publicly distributed in the past).
You have to sign an agreement saying you will not reproduce or distribute the information in any way. This makes it challenging for members to easily access and openly share significant information with each other.
Dozens of board-policy documents are kept "secret" and cannot be reviewed by members for any reason. General Manager James Hathaway maintains that these documents contain "competitive" information and insists that they cannot be redacted for a general audience.
The board does not publish its meeting agendas or minutes, so there is no way to know what they are discussing, proposing, debating, or voting on.
There's no record of how individual board directors have voted on controversial matters, so it's impossible to know where board members stand on sensitive issues, or to see a record of how your district representative has voted in the past.
There's also no record of recusals, so it's impossible to know whether and how directors are voting on matters in which they have a potential conflict of interest.
Director emails are not listed at the DEC site. Director phone numbers and districts are published, but hard to find.
Limited Member Input
Although DEC's member communications often emphasize and celebrate member-owners' ability to make decisions and guide co-op decisions, the annual meeting is the only venue where DEC member-owners can meet, confer, and be heard together. And there is almost no way for members to have any voice there — including on significant decisions like bylaw changes.
Most of the annual meeting time is taken up by standard reports, videos, a luncheon, and even a comic act, while the member-comment period is scheduled at the very end of the meeting, after all the voting has occurred. That’s too late for discussion or debate, or even meaningful questions.
The general manager decides which member questions to answer publicly, and which to ignore. The time for Q and A is strictly limited and allows for no broader airing or discussion of member concerns.
Attending a regular monthly board-of-directors meeting requires the submission of a detailed request form several weeks in advance.
If accepted, you are granted a maximum of 15 minutes to speak or make a presentation. When four of us we attended a board meeting as a group, we were expected to share 15 minutes. The DEC attorney was present and kept strict time. When our 15 minutes was up, he asked us to leave.
If you ask to attend a meeting for purposes of observation, and if your request is granted, you will be asked to leave any time the board wishes to go into "executive session." They might do this multiple times in a single meeting without indicating what topics are being covered, or why the executive session is necessary.
According to DEC policies, the board can bar members from attending regular board meetings or seeing co-op records if they perceive their requests as being "improperly motivated" or otherwise "not in the co-op's best interest." There are no stated guidelines for objectively determining those standards.