Bri Knisley, Appalachian Voices Tennessee Field Coordinator
Ewing, VA.- Actions by leadership at Powell Valley Electric Cooperative (PVEC) during the co-op’s annual membership meeting last Saturday have left many member-owners outraged at what they are calling an abuse of power. The leadership mischaracterized their proposed amendment to the co-op’s bylaws in order to influence members to vote against the proposal, which would have codified members’ ability to attend and record board meetings, access minutes, and address the board as a permanent right. The PVEC board also abruptly changed its policy for submitting amendments, blocking member-owners from their right to vote in 2020 on the amendment proposal.
Over the last several years, PVEC has faced growing public criticism for failing to alert the public to herbicide spraying in power line right-of-ways, and for financial misdeeds, lack of transparency and other governance concerns. The concerns prompted co-op member-owners to form a grassroots group called PVEC Member Voices to improve transparency and democratic governance at the co-op. The group had submitted the proposed amendment to the co-op’s bylaws at the annual meeting in 2018 following the requirements given to them by the co-op board.
“Right now, open board meetings are an unwritten policy made by the board and the board can change that at any time. This amendment would have ensured that board meetings would remain open for future member-owners of the cooperative,” said Lynn Tobey, of PVEC Member Voices.
To discredit the proposal, PVEC attorney David Stanifer told membership at the meeting that it would cost them more money. His explanation was that the amendment, which required minutes to be posted online five days after board meetings, would have required the PVEC board to meet five days after every board meeting to approve minutes before posting, incurring added costs that would have been passed on to the members.
Member-owner Bill Kornrich was prepared to clarify the amendment language, but Board Chair Roger Ball did not allow for further discussion.
“The objection to the motion based on additional costs involved in added board meetings to approve minutes was a non-issue and contrary to the intent of the motion,” Kornrich said. “The word ‘minutes’- by dictionary definition – means ‘official minutes.’ Minutes become official after they are approved at the following board meeting. The chair used its power to control member involvement in an arbitrary manner by refusing to allow discussion and clarification.”
With no opportunity to counter false claims of additional expenses, the amendment failed. Kornrich then resubmitted the amendment for a vote in 2020 with clarified language (by inserting the word “approved” before “minutes”), but Ball instead called for a vote on the spot. When challenged on this unexpected procedure, Ball responded, “If it’s wrong, we’ll redo it.”
This chaotic display of events came just days after the PVEC attorney informed PVEC Member Voices that a parliamentarian would be present at the meeting, and that “Roger Ball Procedure” (as the board’s process had been previously coined by Stanifer) would not be used at Saturday’s meeting.
Electric cooperatives are owned by their customers, called members, and subscribe to a set of cooperative principles that include Democratic Member Control. In recent years, co-op corruption has become a growing problem across in the South and across the U.S., leading to member reform efforts at co-ops like Tri County EMC in South Carolina, Rappahannock Electric Co-op in Virginia and Cumberland EMC in Middle Tennessee, as well as at Powell Valley Electric Co-op.