Special to the Democrat by John Zippert,
Members of the Black Warrior Electric Membership Corporation, as of February 24, 2017 have received a package of materials, including a revised set of By-laws, a summary of the changes and a mail ballot to vote ‘yes’ or ‘no’ on all of the changes in one vote.
Members have contacted the Federation of Southern Cooperatives, which has been sponsoring “a co-op democracy project” focused on Black Warrior, to ask how they should vote on these by-law changes. Black Warrior members have also contacted the Greene County Democrat and other trusted community organizations to ask for advice on this by-law package.
If you receive your electric power from Black Warrior EMC you are a “member” of the cooperative. Black Warrior has 26,000 members in the rural parts of many of the western Alabama Black Belt counties including Greene, Sumter, Hale, Perry, Choctaw, Marengo, Tuscaloosa and others.
If you paid your deposit and have a Black Power Electric meter, you are a member of the “electric membership corporation” or cooperative and you have a vote on major issues facing the cooperative, like election of the board of directors, changing the by-laws and other important issues.
Rev. James Carter of Tishabee Community in Greene County said, “I was surprised to receive this 24 page set of new by-laws in the mail and a ballot to vote, without more explanations, without a meeting scheduled to explain these changes. I have an education but I feel you need to be a lawyer or other professional expert to fully understand this document and make an informed and intelligent vote on it.”
Carter, who is one of the plaintiffs in a lawsuit to make Black Warrior’s Board and Management more transparent, accountable and democratic, also said, “ I am happy to see these by-laws because they answer many questions the members have been raising with Black Warrior, for a number of years, but they also raise new questions about additional discretionary powers granted to the co-op’s Board of Directors, which may adversely affect the members.
“We need more time and a series of meetings in the Black Warrior EMC service area to explain these changes and allow for the members to understand what they are voting on. We are also asked to vote up or down on the whole package in one vote even if we disagree with some of the specific changes or would like to add other changes to make the cooperative more democratic and responsive to its members.”
Adriauna Davis, a Community Outreach Worker with the Federation of Southern Cooperatives, who has been meeting with BWEMC members to discuss and strategize ways to make the power provider more democratic and responsible to its members, said, “We plan to go to court, under our existing lawsuit, and stop this by-law mail ballot until a membership meeting or district membership meetings are held to explain these new by-laws and the changes.”
“In the meantime, we are urging BWEMC members to vote “NO” on the ballot and write in that, “ I do not understand all of these by-law changes and want a meeting to understand and discuss these changes,” said Davis.
Davis points out that the current BWEMC By-laws require a membership meeting to amend the by-laws. The Board and Management, who developed and sent out the new ballot revisions, say their effort is legal under new provisions of the Electric Cooperative Statute of Alabama, which allow for a mail ballot.
Marcus Bernard, Director of the Federation’s Rural Training and Research Center in Epes, Alabama said, “We received about 100 phone calls last week from BWEMC members who were mailed the by-laws package. They say that they do not understand what to do. Many do not fully understand that they are members and are entitled to vote on the by-laws and other matters. We are recommending a “NO” vote until there are educational meetings to explain the changes to members.”
Bernard pointed out that the BWEMC was founded in 1938 and has not revised its by-laws in 66 years since 1950. The co-op has not had an official Annual Meeting of Members to elect the co-op’s board of directors during this same period. Since their have not been official membership meetings, with the required quorum of 5% (1,300 members) the board has been allowed to perpetuate itself without meaningful input from the members.
The Democrat will be following this story closely in coming weeks and will have more articles and opinion pieces on these important issues.