Monitoring Co-Op Democracy

Rural electric power to the people!

Question: How have autocratic REC boards gotten away with openly stiffing their owner-members and flaunting the fundamental democratic principles of co-op organization?

Answer: Unlike unions, charities, and even corporations, co-op governance is virtually unregulated and unsupervised. The founding rationale was that member watchfulness would allow for self-regulation. But over time, the member-disempowerment tactics of entrenched boards rendered “member control” a farce. (Ostensibly, the Ag Dept.’s Rural Utility Service agency, IRS, Federal Energy Regulatory Agency, and a few state utility commissions have some oversight, but they are meek, understaffed, and ineffectual–with no bark, much less bite.)

So, it’s back to the people. In 2010, reformers in Colorado pushed through a model state law requiring that co-op officials comply with standards of transparency and democratic procedures, including:

  • Keep board meeting minutes and post them on co-op websites.
  • Create and publicly post clear procedures for board elections.
  • Make co-op membership lists available to all board candidates, not just incumbents.
  • Post board members’ contact info on co-op websites.
  • Post meeting time, place, and agenda ten days before every board meeting.

Plus, reform activists want to make federal support–including economic development grants and loans for individual cooperatives–contingent on compliance with the rules of democratic governance.

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Such basic guarantees should be a given, but sadly, when money and power are in play, enforceable rules are essential for protecting and advancing the co-ops’ democratic ideals.

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