How Many Rural Electric Cooperatives Can Stand the Glare?

New Orleans      In 2016 after an exhaustive research project on all of the rural electric cooperatives in the twelve Southern states ACORN and the Labor Neighbor Research & Training Center published two reports on our website, as well as in two issues of Social Policy.  One looked at the lack of diversity and absence of any governance accountability in the cooperatives and the other looked at some of the same issues in employment as well as the pay and benefits board members and their executives were giving themselves.  Despite circulating the reports to the cooperatives, state legislators, media outlets, Congressional delegations, and regulatory agencies, it was amazing how we were stonewalled.

Finally, some of the walls around this amazingly insular but significant rural economic and employment institution are beginning to show signs of crumbling as reporters and even some regulators stumble over their featherbedding and self-dealing particularly.  We’ve cited earlier the work of Avery Wilks at the State in Columbia, South Carolina, and his series largely about director financial abuses in that state.  The Advocate papers in New Orleans and Baton Rouge, particularly David Mitchell, have also begun to take a harder look at some of these issues as well, partially because the issues at DEMCO, which has tried to unsuccessfully rebrand from its name as Dixie Electric Membership Corporation, has been catching fire from elected regulators of the Public Service Commission.

The CEO of DEMCO was forced to resign short months before he was officially retiring for failure to reimburse the cooperative for a decade for a $14,000 generator installed at his house.   Reporters have also headlined the fact that employees enjoyed staying at the beach condo of a contractor for the cooperative.  They have also mined the audits DEMCO was forced to have done for other pieces on board members pay and perks.

In hearings, four of the commissioners jumped on the rural electric cooperatives with both feet over their compensation and financial practices.  They have now vowed to scrutinize the sweetheart compensation arrangements between board members and managers, which is at the heart of the second of ACORN and the LNRTC’s reports.  They swear that they will take this into consideration when asked to review rate increase requests from the cooperatives in the future, which is also good to hear.  We’ll once again try to put the reports in their hands to see if they will also finally look at the fact that so much of the representation of the ostensibly democratic body is stuck in the 1950s where race and gender are concerned.

An arch-conservative political science professor at LSU who writes a column for The Advocate sees political intrigue here on the part of the commissioners.  He believes this is obfuscation meant to cover their loss of a boondoggle involving exporting energy from Oklahoma windfarms.  He is correct in hitting them for denying the Claiborne Electric Cooperative the ability to extend internet service in its service areas, which is widely seen around the country as fully appropriate for cooperatives.  For the rest, its mainly more of his usual conspiracy-tinted offering.

For our part we have to believe the PSC is finally doing the right thing, even if for the wrong reasons, if it finally puts an end to the logrolling and self-dealing, anti-democratic practices of cooperative boards.  We’ll really cheer if they also finally address the self-perpetuating practices undemocratic boards have of keeping themselves in and women and minorities out.

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Has Maryland Gone from Bad to Best in Lead Poisoning Prevention?

New Orleans      Almost everyone knows the terribly destructive impact even the least exposure to lead can have in destroying the future of children, yet we still regularly hear about such tragedies even after all of these decades of recognized danger.  In recent years, Local 100 United Labor Union members who were workers at the Houston Independent School District and Dallas Independent School district joined with parents and others to win testing and replacement of water foundations.  Joining with our partners in New Orleans, we are also seeing progress.

All of this seems to pale in light of the developments that have been made in Maryland where state laws and local enforcement combined with aggressive and effective community partners, like the Green & Healthy Homes Initiative directed by Ruth Ann Norton, have totally flipped the script on lead dangers in their communities.  Short years ago, Elijah Cummings, the Congressman from Baltimore was raising this issue in committee hearings and upbraiding companies and federal agencies that had allowed tenants to find their children poisoned.  Now in Maryland, according to the Childhood Lead Registry, in the state that is funded by the federal Center for Disease Control there has been a 98% decline in childhood lead poisoning.  State records indicate that hundreds of thousands of housing units in the Maryland have now been made lead free or lead safe.

This is all very good news and should be a model for states and communities around the country.  How they did this is no secret.  The state passed a series of laws establishing strict standards and a lead rental registry.  In addition to the Maryland Lead Risk Reduction in Housing Act (for pre-1978 rental units), there are additional piece of legislation that have been enacted that involve universal screening, education programs, worker training, and additional services and support for homeowner-occupied properties and, importantly, childcare facilities.  Prior to clearing properties for rental by families, there is now a required inspection for lead, directed clean-up if found, and clearance before the unit can be occupied.  The Maryland Department of the Environment in cooperation with Housing and Health produces an annual report that documents all of this work.  Maryland has also used CHIP administrative funds available federally to set up a lead hazard control fund which provides the grease to finally make these wheels roll.

Certainly, there’s still work to be done in Maryland, just as there is in states throughout the country, but examining the work done by Maryland and its partners in the community, this seems like a model that could be replicated everywhere.  The same federal funding sources to trigger such programs are available everywhere and resources like CHIP are in place in every state already.  The key is finally ignoring the whining of landlords, developers, and politically powerful real estate interests, then doing the inspections and forcing a fix.

There’s obviously a way, the question is whether there is a will to finally eradicate lead poisoning.

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