A filing with the State Corporation Commission last month shines some light on the workings of Virginia rural electric cooperatives, or at least one of them. It also raises an important question about this often-overlooked sector of the commonwealth’s electric distribution system. Electric co-ops are supposed to operate democratically, but do they really? And what happens when they don’t?
Three longtime member-owners of Rappahannock Electric Cooperative (REC), one of whom is me, filed the recent petition. The other two petitioners are Brigadier General John C. Levasseur (U.S. Army Reserves, Retired), and Dr. Michael F. Murphy. REC is one of the largest electric co-ops in the nation. General Levasseur served on REC’s board of directors for more than three years. I didn’t know these two fellow co-op members until last year. We’ve each traveled separate paths that led us to the same conclusion—democracy and transparency are too often practiced more in name than in substance at REC.
We found board practices and maneuvering designed to keep REC members from seeing how the board itself effectively controls board election outcomes. We found board practices that keep co-op members from learning enough about board members and prospective board candidates to make an informed decision when voting in board elections. And we’ve seen a board culture that favors a go-along-to-get-along attitude over asking tough questions of management and looking out for consumers. More details on how REC and its board thwart transparency and democracy are available on the Repower REC website.
Our SCC petition asks the commission to determine that REC’s board of directors is improperly blocking our effort to propose bylaw amendments for consideration by our fellow co-op members. Virginia law and REC’s bylaws explicitly authorize individual co-op members to submit proposed bylaw amendments for a vote by the full co-op membership.
- annually disclose each of its nine board members’ total compensation;
- allow REC members to observe the co-op’s board meetings, in person or online; and
- make a clarifying change to the proxy ballot form REC uses for board elections.
REC’s lawyer Charles W. Payne Jr., writing on behalf of the co-op’s board, advised us that the board will not allow us to submit the proposed amendments for a membership vote. He said the proposed bylaw amendments were not made in good faith, and would violate REC’s bylaws. One wonders how a bylaw amendment, which after all is supposed to change the bylaws, could do anything but “violate” the existing bylaws. Payne didn’t explain the basis for his lack-of-good-faith allegation. Presumably these matters will be clarified as the SCC case proceeds.
In recent years a number of electric co-ops around the nation have faced challenges from co-op members seeking to address democracy and transparency issues. In some instances bylaws have been changed and entrenched co-op boards have been replaced as co-op members re-asserted their rights, re-established transparency and true democratic control, and in many cases uncovered the mismanagement of cooperative resources. Often the old board members had served for many decades without real accountability to co-op members. Three people have been on REC’s board for 20 years or more, and two of those three have been on for well over 30 years. Last year two other REC board members died in office, having been on the board for 35 and 40 years.
The essence of the cooperative form of business is democratic control, with fair elections and meaningful member-owner participation in governance. REC acknowledges this principle on its website. The executive editor of REC’s member magazine Cooperative Living, Richard G. Johnstone, Jr., even advised REC members a few years ago that their “vote on changes or additions to bylaws that govern the utility they own” is perhaps one of the most important aspects of democratic control at an electric co-op. Johnstone should know. He is president and CEO of the Virginia, Maryland, and Delaware Association of Electric Cooperatives.
But in Virginia it’s not clear that any regulator or law-enforcement agency or the General Assembly regularly monitors electric co-ops to ensure that they’re living up to the requirement embodied in Virginia law and federal tax law that co-ops must operate democratically with fair elections. This despite the fact that electric co-ops have monopoly status and receive favorable regulatory, financial, and tax treatment based on the assumption that they are democratic.
A 2008 U.S. Senate hearing focused on undemocratic practices and serious mismanagement and corruption at rural electric co-ops, focusing in particular on Texas-based Pedernales Electric Cooperative, the nation’s largest. A Texas state legislator testified that “without transparency [at an electric co-op] there is no meaningful local control.” A second witness, a leader of the effort to reform the co-op, said “[t]ransparency and openness, combined with fair elections leading to reduced director tenure, could have prevented many of the abuses we suffered at Pedernales.”
There’s also an important role for the press in monitoring electric co-ops’ democracy, or lack thereof. At the U.S. Senate hearing a congressman cited the “outstanding reporting of Margaret Newkirk of the Atlanta Journal Constitution and of Claudia Grisales of the Austin American Statesman chronicling the abuses of Georgia and Texas co-ops.”
Yet here in Virginia only one of the many newspapers distributed in REC’s service territory has thus far reported on the REC board’s effort to block a member vote on the proposed bylaw amendments. That account is in the respected but tiny Rappahannock News, widely read in Rappahannock County, but not elsewhere in REC’s 22-county service area. To its credit, the new nonprofit online publication Virginia Mercury published Robert Zullo’s account of the SCC filing. But many media outlets that seemingly cover Dominion Energy’s every move often ignore the electric co-ops.
As the SCC matter proceeds, it will be interesting to see what arguments REC advances in support of its claim that proposed bylaw amendments somehow improperly “violate” existing bylaws, and the co-op board’s claim that amendments to improve transparency about board compensation, board meetings, and election ballots are made in bad faith.
Even more interesting to observe will be the SCC’s analysis of the matter, and whether state legislators and the press begin to pay attention to whether genuine democracy is practiced in Virginia’s electric co-ops. Those co-ops all love to extoll their supposed democratic governance when seeking favorable treatment in Richmond or Washington D.C. But not all rural electric co-ops live up to their high-minded principles.
Seth Heald has been an REC member-owner for ten years. He is a retired lawyer and has a master of science degree in energy policy and climate.
August 18, 2018 Update: This amazing story, published in Columbia South Carolina’s daily newspaper, The State, shows why electric co-op boards prefer to keep co-op members from knowing the details of board members’ generous compensation.