Beartooth: A Beacon of Transparency

For co-op members to be able to exercise their rights and responsibilities as owners of the cooperative, they must have ready access to information about the co-op’s policies, finances, and practices. Board meetings should be open to the membership, with advance notice of agendas and opportunity for members to address the Board. And election procedures have to be open, with the ability of members to campaign for election to the Board of Directors, and with fair and open voting procedures.

How much information about your electric co-op is available on the co-op’s website? Does it include financial statements, budgets, and filings of reports to the Rural Utility Service and the IRS? Are the by-laws on the website, and do those by-laws include a statement of Members’ Rights? Is there information about who currently serves on the Board, when their term of service expires, and how to contact them? Are Board meetings and agendas posted in a timely manner, with previous meeting minutes from the Board and its committees? Are election procedures and timetables clearly explained?

As a member-owner, you have a right to all this information, and a responsibility to encourage your co-op to make the information available on the website if it isn’t there. The best example we’ve found of rural electric cooperative transparency and member engagement is Beartooth Electric Cooperative in Red Lodge, Montana. In addition to all the information listed above, their website includes the Board’s 4-year strategic plan, and multiple ways for members to get and stay engaged with their co-op.

Beartooth evolved into one of the the most transparent electric co-ops in the country as a direct result of the active participation of member-owners. A crisis was precipitated when Southern Electric Generation & Transmission Cooperative, owned by Beartooth and other electric co-ops in the region, filed for bankruptcy. As members looked into the poor management decisions that led to the crisis, they realized that needed safeguards were not in place. In 2010, they organized to change the by-laws of Beartooth Electric and change the procedures for board elections. Their bylaws now include a Members’ Bill of Rights. They subsequently elected new leadership to the Board. New management at the co-op has not only made Beartooth admirably responsive to member interest, they’ve actually been able to reduce their electric rates - by 5% in 2015, and again by 10% in 2016!

Compare their website to your co-op’s, and then talk with your neighbors about approaching your co-op’s management and board for greater transparency and democracy at the cooperative you own.

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