From May 2018 till May 2021, I was a director on the board of the Adams-Columbia Electric Cooperative. During my tenure I asked myself what works well in this system and what needs attention and could be improved upon. What I soon found was that electric cooperatives are definitely not governed by their members.
Yes, in a legal theoretical sense, the members control their electric cooperative through their vote for board directors. But at Adams-Columbia we only had about 2% member participation in the voting process. We cannot possibly argue that 2% of the membership expresses the will of the membership. Clearly the electric cooperative is governed and controlled by its board and not the members.
When we argue on the state level that the electric cooperatives should not be regulated by the Wisconsin Service Commission over the issue of suspending electric service for non-paying members during the covid pandemic, because we are controlled by the members, we are making a theoretical legal point that does not reflect reality; the members do not control their electric cooperative!
On the state level the WECA (Wisconsin Electric Cooperative Association) is not controlled by its members either. The electric cooperatives affiliated with the WECA fund its operation, its primary purpose is to lobby the state legislature. Directors elected from the pool of electric cooperative directors govern the WECA together with the president of the WECA.
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There is a mechanism to contribute legislative issues through a formal procedure; but the procedure is complicated and from the author’s viewpoint rarely used by the individual electric cooperative directors that are not on the WECA board. Rarely is there a debate of what might be the best approach to a problem among the directors that are not on the WECA board.
In this country there typically is active discussion of most important legislative issues via opinion pieces published by national newspapers on the federal level and similar opinion pieces in Wisconsin newspapers on the state level. WECA does not support any such discussion. In fact such a mechanism is actively discouraged.
The author deliberately, as delegate of Adams-Columbia to the annual meeting of the WECA late in 2020, asked the WECA board to consider allowing opinion pieces of individual directors that are part of the WECA community in the “condenser.” The “condenser" is a news summary issued each Friday morning to all electric cooperative directors via e-mail. The “condenser” also offers opinion pieces of WECA officials.
My idea was to publish opinion pieces either as a response to opinion pieces written by the WECA and/or to allow directors to offer ideas on other issues. Each director of a WECA member cooperative should be able to voice her/his opinion. The request for establishing such a mechanism to debate the issues was denied. When I asked for the reasoning that led to that decision, I did not get an answer. I was apparently not worthy to know why my request was denied.
I conclude that the WECA is only interested in distributing their opinions, the emphasis is on controlling the message. This creates an electric cooperative system across the state of uniform thinking and a lack of debate about the issues. We can do much better in Wisconsin. Let the ideas be published and discussed.
Dietrich Vedder is former director and vice chair of the Adams-Columbia Electric Cooperative.