Stacking the Deck on Co-op Governance

ACORN International Electricity Cooperatives Labor Neighbor Local 100

            Marble Falls      We’ve looked at the diversity and governance of rural electric cooperatives closely over the last five or six years.  By we, I mean ACORN International, Labor Neighbor Research & Training Center, and Local 100 United Labor Unions that came together as the Rural Power Project.  It hasn’t been a pretty picture.

Originally in 2016, we looked just at the twelve states of the confederate South.  The number of Black representatives was miniscule even where there were significant rural population majorities.  Same for Hispanics in south Texas.  Women better but only by a hair.  Diversity?  Almost nonexistent.  We looked again five years later, some progress on the margins, but pretty much same ol’, same ol’, as we published in Social Policy.  More recently in a follow-up, also in the most recent issue of Social Policy, we looked with some hope to see if the rest of the country outside of the South was any better on governance and diversity.  No, not really.  Recently, we got a request asking about Native American representation in South Dakota where there are giant reservations.  Short answer, no, not much.

In our very first report, we said, it seems like REC governing boards have lost their way and are still stuck in the 1950s.  How do they do it?

I’ll give you as example from Coast Electric Power Association along the Mississippi Gulf Coast.  Perhaps it’s random.  This co-op isn’t the worst by any measure either in the South or in Mississippi, but it’s easy to see how the deck is stacked so that the existing board members or those approved by managers and the slate are able to get re-elected time and time again, making sort of a mockery of any pretense that these co-ops are really membership run, democratic institutions.

The mailing I reviewed was received in late July as the official notice for the 2022 annual meeting on November 3rd, more than 3 months away.  That’s a Thursday with an opening time of 630PM.   The three folks put up from each county by the grace of the Nominations Committee were listed in the multi-piece mailing.  The secretary certified on July 27th that there were no nominations by petition by July 6th more than four months from the actual election.  A member would have needed to be Johnny-on-the-stick to suss out the petition rules, get it together, and even be thinking about running from Hancock, Harrison, or Pearl River Counties.

Those are just the minor slaps at a open, transparent democratic system.  The real purpose of the mailing is to lure the members into NOT coming to the meeting or regardless if they come or not, to vote by proxy ahead of the election so that the slate and incumbents are a fait accompli.  They enclose a self-addressed, postage paid envelope so you can mail your proxy to them.  The “Official Proxy” says you can let the board of directors vote your proxy or you can appoint a member, but they want the name and ID by October 28th, and of course that person has to be a member themselves and physically attend.

Then here’s the kicker in this stacked deck.  If you “register your proxy” you have three ways you can do that:  by mail, online, or at their office.  If you are willing to vote by proxy, you are then in entered in a raffle “to win up to $1000 in electricity credits.”

That says it all.  The direct message is, hey, this deal is set, smile, sign the proxy, and you have a chance at a getting a grand off your electricity bill.  Nowhere in all of this is there any indication that if you actually go to the meeting to make your voice heard and vote, that you would have a chance at that money.  No, my friends, only if you’re willing to give your vote away to the existing bunch that are running the co-op and their re-election and slate.

And, we wondered why there was so little change in five years?  What were we thinking?