On Thursday, June 28, I found myself along with a fellow member at the Annual Membership Meeting of my electric cooperative, Blue Ridge Energy, standing in the middle of the room surrounded by my co-op’s board of directors, management and other staff.
We were the only two non-staff and non-Board co-op members in attendance, out of the more than 70,000 total members of the co-op. I was debating back and forth with Blue Ridge Energy CEO Doug Johnson about the need for Blue Ridge to develop a unique financing program that would help address the significant energy cost burden faced by thousands of Blue Ridge members each year (more on that in a future blog).
The other member (whose name we have yet to get approval to use), one of the applicants for our Home Energy Makeover Contest, shared her story about struggling with high energy bills last winter. She described how she and her husband make too much money to be eligible for low-income weatherization assistance, but also don’t have good enough credit to qualify for the ElecTel energy efficiency loan program now available to Blue Ridge Energy members (who have good credit and own their home). This leaves her without access to assistance to help pay for the energy improvements her home needs.
As a member-owner of Blue Ridge Energy, which serves the High Country region of western North Carolina, I believe it is important to be as active as possible in my co-op. I’ve read the bylaws, I read the Carolina Country magazine each month, I meet with co-op staff on issues that are important to me, and I attend as many telephone town halls as I can. But the biggest way that I can engage in the governance of the co-op — which is my right and responsibility as a member-owner — is to vote for members of the board of directors and attend the Annual Membership Meeting each year to share my concerns publicly, with the board and management all in one room.
But unfortunately I’m privileged in this regard, as the large majority of Blue Ridge members either don’t feel as though they can make a difference, aren’t aware of what their rights and responsibilities as co-op members are, or don’t have the luxury to exercise their rights as member-owners of the co-op.
This is a problem, and it is not the members’ fault but directly attributable to the co-op’s distancing of its members from the board and management who make the decisions that affect members and communities. For instance, the Annual Membership Meeting is held during the work week, during the work day, at Blue Ridge’s headquarters in Lenoir, which could be more than a one-and-a-half hour drive for members in the farthest reaches of the co-op’s service area. How many members are likely to be able to take off work and travel to attend, especially considering thousands of members are already struggling with their energy bills and are doing everything they can just to make ends meet?
The fact of the matter is, as made clear by their response to our Letter to the Editor published on June 26 in the Watauga Democrat, the co-op doesn’t actually want members at the annual meeting, despite the fact that the co-op offers no other opportunity over the course of the year for members to interact with the Board Directors they are asked to vote for every year. In its response to our letter, Blue Ridge stated that “the primary purpose of the cooperative’s annual meeting is to hear reports from officers … and to elect the board of directors.”
This was the co-op’s justification for giving members who actually do attend the meeting only one minute to speak or ask questions, with the whole of the public comment period limited to 15 minutes. To me, this clearly illustrates the fact that the meeting is not for members to participate directly in the governance and processes of the co-op they own, but for the co-op to pat themselves on the back and make a few nice public-facing videos.
The co-op used to have a bigger annual meeting event that allowed members to attend and interact more personally with the Board, management, staff and each other. Sadly, the “business meeting” format the event has changed to virtually eliminates any meaningful engagement for Blue Ridge members through the annual meeting. The result is that members feel disengaged from their co-op, so much so that, despite small upticks in votes in recent years due to online voting options, more than 80 percent of Blue Ridge members still don’t vote in the annual board elections. The stakes are too high for that to continue.
Overall, I love being a member of Blue Ridge Energy because being a member of a cooperative reflects who I am and what I believe in. But like so many other members of the co-op, I believe that Blue Ridge can, and must, be better. We don’t want our co-op to be another Duke Energy. We want it to be, well, cooperative. But to get there will require some key reforms in how the co-op operates. These should include:
- Making its monthly Board meetings open to the members, and posting the minutes from those meetings online. Currently the meetings are closed to members, and no records of those meetings are made public.
- Making their Member Advisory Committee meetings public and giving members a vote on who gets to be part of that committee. The current MAC is appointed by the co-op, and the meetings are also held behind closed doors.
- Reverting to the member-focused annual meeting format they once had, and expanding the public comment period to something more reasonable to allow Board Directors to respond, not just management.
Blue Ridge Energy can choose to be the cooperative it was created to be. But given its response to member concerns, it’s pretty unlikely the co-op will take the initiative. At the same time, achieving the needed reforms will take more than two members standing up at the Annual Membership Meeting expressing their needs and concerns. It is up to all of us to get involved, to call for more transparency, to advocate for better policies and programs that meet the needs of our communities and maybe even run for the board ourselves.
If we don’t do these things, Blue Ridge Energy will continue to be little more than a fancy brand with a smooth-talking CEO, and our communities and our wallets will continue to suffer as a result.