In the October issue of the Wisconsin Energy Cooperative News, Dunn Energy Cooperative general manager James Hathaway wrote: “Cooperative principle No. 2 talks about democratic member control. It says that men and women serving as elected representatives are accountable to the membership.”
And in his General Manager’s Report at the annual meeting last March, he wrote: “As a cooperative, control of the organization is placed in the hands of the membership who actively participate in setting the cooperative’s policies and decision making.” That’s called talking the talk.
This month three DEC board incumbents are running for re-election against three challengers. How does a co-op member choose between candidates? Each candidate is allowed a brief statement of goals on the ballot itself. This is not much help since the statements are typically formulaic and obvious, e.g., “reliable service at reasonable cost.”
But because the incumbent has been voting on issues for the previous three years, checking the records for his votes is an obvious strategy. Where would those records be? In the meeting minutes. Where are the meeting minutes? On the co-op website, one assumes. No. They are filed in the co-op’s administrative offices. Meeting agendas are missing, as well. So why aren’t they on the co-op’s website?
In a discussion at a recent board meeting, the District 5 incumbent argued that posting an agenda and minutes on the website would be unfair because not every member has access to the internet. And all members must be treated equally. But, every library in the county has free internet access. By that reasoning, the website itself is unfair and should be taken down. For that director, treating members equally apparently means keeping them all equally in the dark.
Back to accessing the minutes. You request a form to ask to review the minutes. The board grants your request. You truck on over to the co-op offices and are given the minutes by the general manager who requires you to review them in his office in his presence. A bit intimidating maybe, but worth it to become an informed voter by learning how the incumbents running for re-election have voted on issues. Except the minutes contain no vote totals for or against an issue, much less how each member voted.
No help there. You could have flipped a coin and saved yourself all the hassle. But you have discovered something: Dunn Energy’s management and board, whose skills guiding the co-op’s energy and financial matters largely appear competent, have a puzzling dark side regarding governance.
Away from energy issues, they have lost their way, drifting into a mindset that supports policies which limit member input into decisionmaking. One director, when asked how the directors voted last year when they decided to recommend the bylaw changes that seriously limited member legal rights and weakened the co-op’s local control, replied, “Oh no; I can’t tell you that.”
Imagine this scenario. A board meeting agenda is posted on the co-op’s website which announces that the board will be discussing the pros and cons of a bylaw change that grants co-op management the power to refuse to allow a member with a grievance to bring suit in a court of law, instead shunting him or her into arbitration.
The board encourages member input before taking action. Let’s say two members, veterans, attend the meeting and state that among the reasons they served their country was to protect the rights and principles that our nation was founded upon, including the right to seek redress for grievances via the courts. They oppose selling these rights for their small share of the “give-back” that would be theirs from the co-op’s insurer if the bylaw is changed.
If that scenario had occurred, perhaps some board members would have had second thoughts about the bylaw change. And if their individual votes were recorded in minutes posted on the co-op website, members would have something to consider when voting.
On ballots this month, co-op members will have an opportunity to support board candidates who are not dismissive or fearful of member input; who, rather than insulating themselves from scrutiny and escaping accountability, truly believe in walking the walk that true democracy depends on informed voters, and are dedicated to transparency and accountability.
Three such individuals are challenging non-responsive incumbents: Douglas Owens-Pike, Jeffrey Gasteyer, and Lisa Pelnar. Now is the time to begin taking back our co-op.