Co-op members: You are on notice

........................................................................................................................................................................................

Socorro Electric Cooperative will hold its annual meeting on Saturday, April 14, at Macey Center on the campus of New Mexico Tech in Socorro. Registration is from 1 to 3 p.m. The business meeting gets under way at 3 p.m.

I tell you this because the co-op has done little to inform its member-owners (yes, the people who as defined by state and federal acts actually own the rural electric utility). And by law electric co-ops are set up as democratically controlled corporations run by their members.

Sure, they’ve posted notice of the meeting on their website, but when was the last time you were inspired to visit the co-op’s website?

They also sent notice, which appropriately lists the measures to be voted on, in the latest edition of Enchantment magazine. But judging by how many of those ended up in the trash can at the post office, not very many people saw it.

It’s not their duty to do so, but it’s been a group of members interested in co-op reform who have done a better job of sending notice — handing out fliers, posting them in public places, blasting emails and talking it up.

In the past, Socorro Electric sent notice of its annual meeting in the mail — either along with bills (not something people are likely to throw out) or separately and not in a form that is most recognizable as junk mail.

Enchantment may have been a way to save money on postage, but it sure wasn’t a good way to notify members. A separate mailing might have cost $5,000 to notify 10,000 members, but that’s a mere pittance compared to the amount being spent on lawsuits.

And notice of the annual meeting is arguably the single most important message/obligation the co-op has to give its membership. It’s not the kind of thing it should be pinching pennies over.

I’m admittedly biased, but Socorro Electric would have done its members a better service by publishing notice and the resolutions in El Defensor Chieftain.

Cities and counties are required by law to publish in what are defined by state law as legal newspapers, of which El Defensor Chieftain is the only one in Socorro and Catron counties, legal notices of what will appear on the ballot in advance of elections.

No, that law doesn’t apply to co-ops, but if Socorro Electric was sincere and proactive about transparency it would have done it.

I emailed Socorro Electric’s general manager, Joseph Herrera, to express my opinion about it and told him I was sending our sales representative over. He wrote back to say members were told notice would be published on the website and in Enchantment when a letter was sent out last month regarding mail-in ballots and that Socorro Electric had fully complied with its bylaws regarding giving notice.

Still, the co-op could have done a better job of shedding light.

So what’s on the ballot? As a public service I’ll provide a summary and give you my take on what they mean. If you want the co-op’s take, you’ll have to reach out to them.

The ballot includes a series of proposed resolutions submitted by the board of trustees — the same folks who voted to sue you, at your expense, two years ago. Don’t read into that. They’re not all bad resolutions. Just most of them are.

  • There’s a bunch of editorial revisions that clarify language, correct terminology and change the order of business at district and annual meetings. These appear relatively harmless, unless I’m missing something.
  • A proposal to realign districts. This is a mandate proposed, and overwhelmingly approved, by members two years ago. It’s much better than the one that was up for vote at last year’s meeting — the one members stayed away from in droves.

If it passes, and I truly hope it does, it creates five districts containing about as equal a number of members in each district as you could possibly hope for. Approving it is essential not only to assure equal representation, but to move co-op reform forward. Without it, it could short circuit progress for yet another year.

  • A proposal to add two at large members to the board of trustees, bringing the number to seven. The co-op argues that five is too few and that may be true. Only one of the other 15 co-ops in the state operates with just five trustees.

The problem is the two at large members can come from any district. It is well within the realm of possibility the at large board members would come from the same district (Socorro). Although no district could achieve a majority on the board, it would come close. All that would be needed to create a majority alliance that could control the board would be for one trustee from another district to join them.

  • A proposal that changes the bylaw regarding the removal of trustees. This one is well scripted, including language “to protect the interests of SEC members,” “ensure the integrity of the board” and to ensure “that board members are free to voice their opinions and concerns.”

What it doesn’t say is it’ll make it a lot easier for the board to get rid of Charlie Wagner, the rabble rousing trustee leading the reform movement. That aside, what it does is takes the authority to remove a trustee out of the hands of the nearly 2,000 people the trustee represents and puts it in the hands of a handful of people.

  • A proposal to increase the compensation trustees receive to no more than one percent of revenues. It puts compensation more in line with other co-ops. It’s probably a legitimate proposal. But coming from a board that spent members’ money to sue them and for years received compensation well in excess of that paid to trustees at other co-ops — nearly $500,000 in 2009 — they’ll have a hard time convincing members it’s for the good of the co-op.
  • Two proposals that reduce the requirement for notice of special meetings from five to three days and notice of emergency meetings to really no notice at all. Though these are in line with revisions to the Open Meetings Act, those revisions make it too easy for the board to take action without members knowing about it. This proposal may not even be necessary, since there’s already a bylaw that requires the co-op to abide by OMA.
  • A proposal that allows Socorro Electric to seek recovery of costs incurred for defending itself against “frivolous” lawsuits. While that would make sense, I’d rather see a proposal that allows members to receive recovery of costs from a board of trustees that chooses to sue them.
  • A proposal that allows the board to make contributions to nonprofit groups or provide sponsorships.

Call me a softy, but I’m conceptually on board with this one. Any profitable business should be charitable, give back to its community and be supportive of worthy causes. What’s wrong with this proposal is it lists no restrictions and places no limit on how much can be contributed to a single entity. And who is to say what beneficiaries are, to use their word, “appropriate.”

That’s my take, but everyone should decide for themselves. So dig that copy of Enchantment out of the trash can, or go online, if you own a computer, and study the measures yourself. Then decide for yourself and, most importantly, show up next Saturday for the annual meeting.

Once again, registration is from 1 to 3 p.m. at Macey Center. The business meeting begins at 3 p.m.

Democracy only works if you show up.

 


-- Email the author at tslast@dchieftain.com.