Cobb EMC, serving an area north of Atlanta, GA, was on the path to supporting development of a new $2 billion coal plant in late 2008, until the members organized to reform their Board of Directors. Now the co-op is replacing over 100 megawatts of the planned coal capacity with a new solar energy plant that will go online later in 2016.
Corruption at Cobb was rife and institutionalized. Back in 1997, Cobb EMC’s CEO, Dwight Brown, convinced the EMC board to set up a private for-profit corporation, Cobb Energy, as a subsidiary. Cobb Energy, which was owned by Brown and other co-op insiders, took over the operations of the co-op and then charged the co-op a markup of up to 12%(!), costing the membership nearly $400 million, while Brown personally pocketed over $21 million.
In 2007, members filed a lawsuit alleging “breach of fiduciary duty, gross mismanagement, waste of corporate assets and unjust enrichment.” The members agreed to settle the lawsuit when Brown was forced to step down, and the co-op committed to making additional reforms, but appeals ended up putting new board elections on hold.
Then the new coal plan was announced, galvanizing the members to form a new member association, Cobb Alliance for Smart Energy. The members were successful in delaying development of the coal plant, and, in the course of their organizing, built strength and recruited among the membership for new candidates for the Board of Directors.
In 2011 and 2012 six new reform candidates were elected to the Board. One of the newly elected reform board members was a consultant to utilities building new power plants. His opposition to the coal plant plan was instrumental in the co-op finally abandoning the project, and committing to a solar power agreement.
In 2013, Cobb members voted in record numbers to pass a Member Bill of Rights. In 2015, members put up four proposed bylaw changes to increase transparency, all of which were approved by member vote, although one -- requiring open meetings at any meeting with a quorum of directors -- has been opposed by the current board.
Members are concerned about the current board’s response to the recently completed forensic audit pertaining to the corruption years. Senior staff from that period is still in place, and the board at first withheld the audit, and has not yet acted to pursue criminal charges against those involved. Through the independent Cobb EMC Forum, the members maintain their vigilance and work to continue the reform process. As Forum President Mark Hackett said, “Scuttling the coal plant in favor of cleaner renewable energy never would have happened without members getting involved. Our challenge and mission it to try to encourage member involvement in Cobb EMC so that we never revisit the sins of the past.”
In 2016, incredibly, five years after being indicted on 35 counts in 2011, Cobb’s former CEO Dwight Brown had all charges against him dropped! Three incumbent board members won re-election, so the two challengers in District 4 both lost to an incumbent. The Cobb EMC board made changes to restrict members’ rights to propose bylaw changes, and the bylaw amendment proposed by Cobb EMC Forum member Mark Hackett to make it easier for members to propose bylaw amendments was defeated.
In 2018, Cobb EMC Forum working with the Partnership for Southern Equity and other partners increased voter turnout in the board elections, but again saw challengers lose to incumbent board members.