An energy watchdog group’s release last week of a formerly secret 2018 report from the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association (NRECA) reveals that NRECA’s governance task force supports reforms that Virginia electric co-op boards are fiercely resisting. The two key reforms, sought at Rappahannock Electric Cooperative (REC) by the Repower REC reform campaign, would help to ensure fair board elections and more transparent governance. Electric co-ops are owned by their customers, who in fact are not called “customers,” but rather “member-owners.” The heretofore secret NRECA governance report was disclosed last week by the Energy and Policy Institute.
Arlington, Va.-based NRECA is the powerful group that lobbies for some 900 rural electric co-ops across the country, and also provides training to board members of those co-ops. In the past 15 years serious governance problems came to light at a number of electric co-ops—some rising to the level of outright scandal, as documented in a 2008 congressional hearing. While some rural electric co-ops implemented reforms in response to the scandals, others have resisted. At some co-ops, board positions are tantamount to sinecures, with well-paid board members staying on for many decades or life, their positions sometimes handed down to friends, relatives, or other insiders. Democratic control is sometimes more an appearance than reality.
Two member-owner groups are currently seeking reforms at rural electric co-ops at opposite ends of the commonwealth. PVEC Member Voices seeks reforms at Powell Valley Electric Co-op, in far Southwest Virginia, while the Repower REC campaign (of which I am a co-founder) seeks changes at REC, which stretches from West Virginia almost to the Chesapeake Bay. With 139,000 member owners, Fredericksburg-based REC is one of the largest electric co-ops in the nation, and the third largest electric utility in Virginia.
Repower REC has urged REC’s board to fix the co-op’s unfair blank proxy election practice, which allows REC’s board, rather than co-op members, to determine board-election outcomes. This is not an academic or theoretical issue at REC—board-controlled blank proxies change actual election outcomes.
Three times in the past four years the board’s control of several thousand blank proxies altered election results, allowing a board-favored candidate to prevail over the candidate who received the most direct member-owner votes. Just last August, Dr. John Manzari—a board candidate seeking reforms of REC’s governance, rooftop solar, and broadband policies—received the majority of votes cast directly by member-owners.
But Manzari still lost the election because the board cast more than 2,000 blank proxy votes for his opponent–the incumbent. Although nothing in REC bylaws requires or specifically authorizes the practice, REC’s board treats blank “member-undesignated” proxies as delegating the member-owner’s vote to the board to cast as it sees fit.
Disturbingly, many of these blank proxies are solicited and collected by REC employees at the co-op’s offices when members come in to pay a bill in cash or resolve a payment issue. REC employees talk up the valuable prizes co-op members can have a chance to win by just signing the form, say that it’s okay to leave the form blank, and insist that the form be returned on the spot to the REC employee, rather than mailed directly to the independent election administrator, as announced election procedures require.
This REC vote-solicitation and collection practice, which prevents members from informing themselves about candidates and encourages signed but otherwise blank proxies, is the primary way incumbent REC board members game the system to allow their favored candidates (usually themselves) to stay on in their well-paid positions for decades. (REC board members in recent years have been paid around $30,000 to $48,950. Each director’s total pay depends on how many official REC meetings or events he or she attends.)
In 2017 NRECA publicly announced a 20-member task force appointed to examine governance issues at electric co-ops, and noted the importance of ensuring democratic member control. Two of the task force members were leaders at Virginia co-ops: John Hewa, a vice president at REC, and Brenda Hicks Johnson, a director at Southside Electric Co-op. NRECA’s Governance Task Force completed its work and issued a report in early 2018.
Despite the public announcement of the task force, NRECA kept its report secret, available only to senior co-op managers and co-op board members. The report was thus not available (until EPI published it last week) to the tens of millions of U.S. rural electric co-op member-owners most directly harmed by undemocratic co-op practices and poor governance at their co-ops.
NRECA’s Governance Task Force, we now know, recommended against board-election practices that give large numbers of proxy votes to incumbent boards, allowing them to control board-election outcomes. The task force reasoned that giving boards large numbers of blank proxies “may give the perception that the board controls or improperly influences director elections.” At REC that’s not just a perception—it’s the reality. REC’s board effectively controls every board election and has done so for at least a decade, and likely longer.
NRECA’s governance report also addresses a second Repower REC position. Repower REC has urged REC to open its board meetings for co-op member-owners to observe, as many electric co-ops around the country (but only one in Virginia) do. This is the only way member-owners can monitor the performance of individual board members, which of course is essential to casting informed votes in board elections. NRECA’s governance task force recommended this reform too, saying that opening co-op board meetings for co-op member-owners to observe could “facilitate transparency and openness, and strengthen the democratic nature of cooperatives.”
PVEC Voices also seeks open board meetings. At the reform group’s urging, PVEC’s board meetings were recently opened for co-op members to observe. PVEC Voices seeks to ensure this reform sticks by enshrining it in the co-op’s bylaws, but the co-op’s board took steps to keep the reform measure from coming to a member vote.
REC’s board and management have fiercely resisted efforts to change these two undemocratic practices (board control of election outcomes and secret board meetings) and refused to engage as a board in dialogue with Repower REC representatives about these issues. The board even refused to allow REC member-owners to vote on whether to reform the disputed election and board-meeting practices. That has led to litigation in the SCC and courts about the rights of Virginia co-op members to vote on such democratic reforms. The SCC earlier this year said it was not interested in resolving what it called an “internal management” issue, so the litigation moved to the courts and is now pending in the Spotsylvania County Circuit Court.
The NRECA governance report was available to all electric co-op board members and managers, so it’s reasonable to assume all REC board members and senior management have seen it and been aware of its recommendations since early 2018. REC did not disclose in the SCC proceeding that the reforms REC’s board opposes were recommended by the NRECA task force. REC was not under any legal obligation to do so, but the co-op’s claims to the SCC that the proposed reforms would somehow severely damage the co-op now ring especially hollow in light of what we have learned about the NRECA governance report.
The REC board’s absolute refusal to consider or discuss these issues in a dialogue with Repower REC is unjustifiable. Even more disturbing, REC’s board accused Repower REC’s co-founders of lacking “good faith” for even proposing the two democratic reforms. The board’s accusation was leveled in a letter sent several months after the 2018 NRECA governance report came out and was available to REC’s board.
It’s unclear why REC’s board has so strongly resisted common-sense, democratic reforms that would bring the co-op in line with best governance practices. It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that board members don’t want to compete on a level playing field in fair elections and don’t want their constituents to know what board members are doing.
We hear a lot about “energy democracy” these days. Virginia’s electric co-ops receive favorable tax and regulatory treatment based on the assumption that the co-ops are democratically controlled. The commonwealth’s regulators and law-enforcement agencies should be aware that democratic control cannot be assumed, but must instead be verified. Virginia legislators should also examine NRECA’s governance report and how the commonwealth’s electric co-ops sometimes fail to live up to their democratic principles. If Virginia’s electric co-ops persist in blocking basic democratic reforms, the General Assembly should enact measures to ensure that co-op democracy is a reality, not just a slogan.
Seth Heald is a member-owner of REC and a co-founder of the Repower REC Campaign. He is a retired U.S. Justice Department lawyer and also has a master of science degree in energy policy and climate.