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Democracy is the co-op way

May 30, 2017

Board member Alan Gabriel visited Washington D.C. with South Central employees Rose Grear, Lisa Hooker and Allison Saffle. Here they met with U.S. Senator Sherrod Brown.

Every year, South Central Power has an annual meeting. One of the most important activities we conduct is the election for the board of directors. These are the 11 people we entrust to give strategic direction and ensure the co-op has good governance.

In 1844 when the 28 Rochdale pioneers created the modern cooperative movement, they were insistent that all members have the right to vote. Unless we consistently remind ourselves how precious this right to vote truly is, we can easily take it for granted.

At South Central Power, we try to make it as convenient as possible for members to participate in the election by mail. Since the utility industry is experiencing some of the biggest changes since its founding, electric co-ops need your active participation. As a member of a co-op, you have the right (and some may even say the obligation) to help set the direction for the co-op. This is a critical difference between co-ops and other electricity providers, such as investor-owned utilities (IOUs) or municipally-owned systems.

With IOUs, you are a customer, and there is no required ownership. IOU stockholders live far away and have no direct attachment to the organization other than seeking a return on their investment. Communities served by municipally-owned systems may vote for the mayor or city council, but the connection to the electric service is very indirect.

The board of directors of a co-op makes important strategic decisions for the organization, while the operations (day-to-day running of the business) is entrusted to the employees. Examples of decisions boards make that impact all the members include:

  • the level of involvement in community economic development
  • whether to offer renewable types of energy such as solar or wind-generated power to the members
  • offering other services such as security systems
  • approving the budget

When the next election for the board comes around, you may want to ask the candidates where they stand on these or other issues. As locally-owned businesses in the community, electric co-ops have the opportunity to introduce neighbors to neighbors and rekindle that spirit of democracy at the grassroots level. We can encourage respectful debate about the role we see our co-op playing in our community.

We know that democracy is not a perfect form of governing, but it happens to be better than any of the others. Maybe if we can practice doing it well at the local level, it will have a positive impact on our democracy as a whole.