Stay in the know! Sign up to get Fauquier County news updates delivered to your inbox.
Advertise on Fauquier Now!
FauquierNow.com
How do you rate the security of your personal information online? Vote!
HOME OBITUARIES NEWS OPINIONS BUSINESS STYLE CALENDAR CLASSIFIEDS
Free classifieds! Members can also post calendar events, news, opinions and more ... all for free! Register now!
Login · Forgot Your Password?
September 3, 2021 · OPINION

Va. electric co-op board elections undemocratic

By Seth Heald
Virginia Mercury Guest Column

Summer is annual-meeting time at Virginia’s 13 electric cooperatives. Like all consumer cooperatives, electric co-ops are owned by their customers (called “member-owners”) and are supposed to be democratically governed. The key to genuine democratic control is board-of-director elections, which happen at each co-op’s annual meeting, where member-owners can vote for board candidates.

Unfortunately, fair elections do not always happen at some Virginia co-ops.

Two examples from Virginia electric co-op annual meetings this month demonstrate ways large and small in which incumbent co-op boards game the system to help their favored board candidates. The most egregious case occurred at Rappahannock Electric Cooperative (REC), which serves rural and suburban Virginians in 22 counties, including Fauquier. In a five-way race in REC’s August board election, there was a clear winner among co-op member-owners who selected a candidate. Hanover County businessman Roddy Mitchell got more than twice as many member-owner votes as any of the four other candidates.

But through the needlessly arcane and confusing proxy-voting process that REC uses, REC’s board was able to allocate some 6,000 additional votes to the board-favored candidate, thereby swinging the election win to him. That board-favored candidate came in fourth out of five when looking at votes that member-owners cast for candidates.

When a board controls 40 to 60 percent or more of all votes, as REC’s board generally does, the board effectively controls the election outcome.

REC’s board controls huge numbers of votes each year because proxy ballots left blank are deemed by REC’s board as a delegation of the member-owner’s vote to the incumbent board to decide whom to cast them for. Moreover, REC offers those who send in a proxy a chance to win cash prizes, which encourages member-owners to submit blank proxies, even if they have no interest in the election or makeup of the board. REC election tally forms going back over a decade show that every year REC’s incumbent board controls enough blank proxies to control election outcomes. For the past 12 years, no candidate has won a single race without getting the board-controlled votes.

Thus, the way to win an REC board election is to please incumbent board members, not to get the most votes from member-owners. That isn’t fair, it isn’t democratic, and it leads to board groupthink. No wonder incumbent REC board members stay in their well-paid positions for decades or for life.

A National Rural Electric Cooperative Association governance task force report recommended against using board-controlled proxies to swing election results. But REC’s board continues to ignore that recommendation years after it was made.

Meanwhile, neighboring Shenandoah Valley Electric Cooperative’s board changed the co-op’s bylaws at a closed meeting in June to help out an incumbent board member facing a strong challenge from another candidate in the August election. The board added a bylaw provision saying that in the case of a tie between an incumbent and non-incumbent candidate, the incumbent would be deemed the winner of a one-year board term!

There is currently no government oversight of Virginia electric co-op elections and no law to ensure fair board-election procedures, prohibit abusive proxy practices or prohibit using board-imposed bylaw changes to favor incumbents.

This is important because electric cooperatives are essential service providers that operate as monopolies. Monopoly utilities seldom act in the best interest of their customers unless subjected to meaningful scrutiny, accountability and independent oversight. Such oversight is lacking when co-op boards have ironclad control of board-election outcomes. It’s time for the General Assembly to step in and ensure basic, fair election practices to give Virginia electric cooperative member-owners a true say in the governance of the utilities they own.

The writer is a retired U.S. Justice Department lawyer and has a master of science degree in energy policy and climate. He is a member-owner of Rappahannock Electric Cooperative and co-founder of Repower REC, a campaign to bring genuine democracy to Virginia’s electric co-ops.

Member comments
To comment, please log in or register.
Enter your email address above to begin receiving
news updates from FauquierNow.com via email.
Wednesday, September 22
Virginia has 45 more deaths attributed to the virus, health department reports Wednesday morning
Wednesday, September 22
Governor’s Aug. 5 directive provides weekly COVID-19 testing option for the 120,000 affected employees
Tuesday, September 21
Brendan Mitchell Henry, 23, faces two charges for Sept. 15 incident at H.M. Pearson Elementary School near Catlett
More Fauquier news
© Copyright 2011-2018

50 Culpeper Street, Suite 3
Warrenton, Virginia 20187
540.359.6574
Crime Log
Obituaries
Business
Add Your News
The Big Picture
Ellen’s Kitchen
and Garden

Features
Real Estate
For Sale
Employment
Automotive
Announcements
Legal Notices
Post an Ad
Advertise
Terms of Service