By Carol Vaughn —
Nearly 70 participants in a virtual town hall held Tuesday, Aug. 10, were encouraged to be active members of Accomack-Northampton Electric Cooperative.
The cooperative’s annual meeting is Thursday, Aug. 26, at 7 p.m. at the ANEC offices, 21275 Cooperative Way in Tasley. Sign in begins at 6:30 p.m.
To attend, you must register in advance by calling ANEC at 757-787-9750; choose option 3 on the menu. You also can register on the website, anec.com. Select the tab “2021 Annual Meeting and fill out the form. Only the person whose name is on the electric bill for the household may attend.
The meeting will be broadcast live on WESR and a recording will be available later.
The agenda is in the August 2021 issue of Cooperative Living magazine.
The town hall, sponsored by Virginia Organizing Eastern Shore Chapter and Citizens for a Better Eastern Shore, included two speakers, Emily Piontek of Appalachian Voices, a grassroots advocacy organization, and Karen Campblin of the Virginia State Conference NAACP.
The purpose was “to provide information and awareness” to ANEC members and to empower them “to advocate for the changes that we want,” according to CBES board member Sue Mastyl.
Among topics discussed was how other rural electric cooperatives are providing broadband internet services to their members.
There are 13 electric cooperatives in Virginia.
Piontek, Virginia Energy Democracy Field Coordinator for Appalachian Voices, spoke about what it means to be a member-owner of the electric cooperative, which is a not-for-profit entity governed by a nine-member board of directors elected by members.
Anyone who purchases electricity from ANEC is a member.
Piontek criticized ANEC for what she called a lack of transparency on its website and said ANEC bylaws do not require open meetings and do not require the board to provide minutes to cooperative members.
“A&N doesn’t require open board meetings, so member-owners are not permitted to attend those meetings, so it’s difficult to know exactly what the decision-making process is like,” Piontek said.
Piontek also said permitting proxy voting for board members favors incumbent candidates.
Additionally, Piontek said ANEC board members are compensated, at a rate of around $11,000 to $20,000 annually each, through a charge to members.
The compensation figures come from a 2018 IRS Form 990 filed by ANEC, which Piontek found on the ProPublica website. The form shows the lowest compensation to a director that year was $11,850 and the highest was $20,000.
Each residential household served by ANEC pays a monthly $14 access charge in addition to a charge for their electric usage. The access charges are used by the co-op to cover the cost of operations, including board compensation, according to Piontek.
“They are there to serve you. You are paying their salaries, and so they really should be answering to you, the member-owners of A&N,” she said.
Piontek said democratic member control is one of the guiding principles put forward by the national trade association, the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association.
At present, only one of Virginia’s 13 cooperatives allows members to attend board meetings, she said, noting by way of contrast the state of Colorado, where electric cooperative board meetings are open to the public, agendas are available ahead of time, public participation is invited, and meeting minutes are posted online afterward.
Piontek also spoke about the role of electric cooperatives in providing broadband, noting the Virginia General Assembly in 2020 authorized the use of existing utility easements to provide broadband.
Senate Bill 794, which was introduced by Sen. Lynwood Lewis and signed into law by Gov. Ralph Northam, declared it is the policy of the commonwealth that electric and communications easements may be used to provide or expand broadband or other communication services.
Five Virginia cooperatives are working with local governments and broadband providers to pursue providing broadband service to members, according to Piontek.
Additionally, Rappahannock Electric Cooperative, the largest in the state, is considering implementing broadband after members put on pressure to do so, she said.
Piontek urged ANEC members to engage with the cooperative and to “let your board of directors know that you want the utility to work with local governments, to work with any broadband providers on the Eastern Shore to take advantage of Senate Bill 794.”
Virginia is expecting $700 million in federal funding from the American Rescue Plan Act to expand broadband access, she said.
“To me it just seems like a clear opportunity for a co-op such as A&N to take advantage of any funding that’s available to them, with pressure from you all for them to do that and to help make broadband accessible,” Piontek said.
ANEC CEO Responds
ANEC chief executive officer Butch Williamson responded by email to questions about the cooperative’s governance and other issues raised during the town hall.
According to the bylaws, the board of directors is chosen by members to represent them on the board, he said.
“The Board recognizes the importance of a good relationship between Board members and the membership at-large and that the reputation of the Cooperative is affected by the attitudes and actions of its associates. Any Cooperative member or a group of members who have an issue or comments they’d like to bring to the board are urged to contact the Cooperative’s CEO and/or board member who represents the district they reside in. Board members’ email addresses are all listed on the Board of Directors page at anec.com (www.anec.com/content/board-directors). Once contacted, those board members can set up a meeting with the member or group. If that meeting doesn’t resolve the issue, the board member can bring it back for consideration by the full board,” Williamson wrote.
Asked whether members can attend regular board meetings, Williamson said that, while ANEC is owned by its consumers, who elect the board, “it is still a business, not a government body. Its board is more comparable to a typical corporate board of directors than to a board of supervisors or school board. Because of the nature of its business, particularly as a distribution electric utility, the Cooperative Board is responsible for discussing and deciding a broad array of important issues, many of which can be commercially sensitive. Regular board meetings often have sensitive or protected information which may be discussed throughout the meeting. The Cooperative’s operations are conducted in a heavily regulated environment and subjects such as Red Flag rules dealing with financial information, detailed sensitive background information, cyber security plans/strategies and physical electric grid assets are considered confidential and present security risks if discussed in an open meeting. Industry strategies and governmental facilities as well as private and public business development are topics that are often discussed that are also confidential in nature.”
The way meetings are conducted means directors “operate in a forum that is safe for them to ask questions, debate alternatives and when necessary, hold management and each other accountable, without having to run every thought or word through a political filter,” according to Williamson.
The cooperative is not subject to “sunshine rules” that apply to public bodies and its board meetings are not open to the public or even to the membership.
Still, at times a member is invited by the board to address a specific issue and any member who would like to address the board on a specific issue can request to do so by calling the cooperative or by using the “contact us” form at anec.com, he said.
Board meetings are typically held the fourth Thursday of each month except for September, November, and December, when meetings are held a week prior.
To view meeting minutes, members can call the cooperative at 757-787-9750 or use the “contact us” form on the website to make a request for the minutes of a particular meeting.
There is a public comment period at each annual meeting, including the Aug. 26 meeting.
Only one member of each account can register for the annual meeting and COVID-19 protocols will be followed.
Members can submit questions prior to the meeting or comment period. Any issues that may be personal in nature are redirected so they are not discussed in a public forum and can be handled one-on-one with the member to protect their privacy, according to Williamson.
“Board members live and work in the communities we serve, and they have frequent, informal neighborly chats with the members they represent,” Williamson said, adding, “Co-op members have several different avenues they can use to bring issues to the cooperative and its board of directors. In many cases the type of issue may dictate which route they should take.
“In addition to the communication methods mentioned above, the cooperative routinely provides notices, information, and updates through its monthly publication, Cooperative Living, as well as receives responses on a number of diverse issues from the membership through our quarterly member satisfaction survey. Members also reach out to us on a variety of issues daily through phone and email to staff.
“Outside of comments and issues to the Board and Staff, Members also have the option at any time to file a complaint with the State Corporation Commission. A link directly to the commission’s online complaint form is posted on the About Us section of anec.com.”
Financing Energy Efficiency
Campblin, environment and climate justice committee chairperson for the Virginia State Conference NAACP, said Senate Bill 754, also passed in the 2020 General Assembly session, authorizes electric cooperatives to establish on-bill tariff programs under which customers and the cooperative enter into an agreement that provides for costs, including financing, of energy efficiency measures to be paid by or through the cooperative and repaid by the customer by means of an energy savings charge on the customer’s monthly bill.
Those measures include heating and air conditioning systems, water heaters, weatherization, insulation, window and door modifications, appliances, and automatic or internet-connected control systems.
“The bill represents an unprecedented opportunity for Virginia electric cooperatives that in the totality serve over 600,000 member-owners to make the transition in Virginia to a clean energy economy,” Campblin said.
“Conservatively, electric cooperatives could invest as much as $70 million a year in home energy upgrades that could reach…thousands of homes per year,” she said, adding the improvements would provide local economic stimulus by generating business for local companies, as well as saving cooperative members money on their electric bill.
The legislation allowed for these “pay as you save” programs to begin as early as January 2021 on condition that each cooperative conduct a stakeholder process at least 120 days before a program is established.
“It’s very important for the members to be able to have their voices heard as to how they want this program to be implemented,” Campblin said.
Rappahannock Electric Cooperative is the first Virginia cooperative to initiate the stakeholder process with three community sessions, the last of which is set for Aug. 26.
“A lot of the cooperatives around the Commonwealth of Virginia have indicated that they are currently in a holding pattern and they would like to see the program that Rappahannock Electric Cooperative develops,” Campblin said.