‘It’s time you catch hell.’ Tensions erupt as Midlands utility board refuses to resign

Angry Tri-County power customers take over board meeting

About 80 people attended a monthly board meeting for Tri-County Electric, presumably because of the co-op’s pay scandal. Board members set to be presented with a petition that could kick them out of office.
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About 80 people attended a monthly board meeting for Tri-County Electric, presumably because of the co-op’s pay scandal. Board members set to be presented with a petition that could kick them out of office.

Tensions over a pay scandal involving Tri-County Electric Cooperative’s board of directors erupted Thursday when the part-time board members refused demands that they resign, made by a room full of angry customers.

The co-op’s board, under fire for paying themselves more than three times the national average for co-op directors, also enraged the crowd by refusing to schedule a meeting for customers to vote on whether to fire the board.

That meeting is required by law after more than 1,600 Tri-County customers — the co-ops’s owners — signed a petition calling for the board’s removal, an unprecedented step in the 80-year history of S.C. electric co-ops.

Customers of the rural Midlands co-op collected the signatures after The State reported that Tri-County’s board had given themselves roughly $52,000 in pay and benefits in 2016. Directors collected that pay, in part, in per-diem allowance for attending an unusually high number of meetings and by awarding themselves health insurance plans.

“We grew up with all of y’all. We went to school with y’all. So we trusted y’all,” said Betty Campbell, one of roughly 100 Tri-County customers who packed the board’s monthly meeting Thursday in St. Matthews.

Customers, including a handful who signed up to speak and dozens more who shouted from their seats, said they felt blindsided and betrayed by co-op directors who they had elected. Tri-County has roughly 13,600 customers in tight-knit communities in parts of Calhoun, Orangeburg, Richland, Lexington, Kershaw and Sumter counties.

“This membership … is clearly energized beyond anything I’ve seen in my time,” John Felder, Tri-County’s general counsel, remarked during the meeting.

Board members seldom addressed the crowd’s questions directly, sometimes referring them to Chief Executive Chad Lowder. They also did not respond to periodic calls for their resignations. They left the meeting room quickly after adjourning their monthly meeting and were gone from the building within minutes, according to Tri-County staff.

Tensions already were high when the meeting began. Customers waited more than an hour for the appearance of the board members, who had been meeting with an attorney in another room.

Growing restless, the crowd chanted, “Just resign.”

One customer, Barbara Weston, grabbed a live microphone and began recounting details of the board’s pay and benefits.

“That’s our money,” Weston told the riled-up crowd. “It is not fair. It is not right and we are not trusting them with any more of our money or our time.”

State Rep. Wendy Brawley, D-Richland, joined the crowd in calling for the remaining board members to resign, a move that has been endorsed by the co-ops’ trade association, the Electric Cooperatives of South Carolina.

Three board members already have quit. Two — Barry Hutto and Jeff Reeves — resigned in protest on May 17, the same day a proposal to limit the board’s pay was defeated after some board members campaigned against the pay cut.

“What has happened here has caused people to lose trust in this board,” Brawley said. “I don’t know where you go from here other than to resign. … There is still time to be honorable.”

Co-op attorney Felder recommended the board set an Aug. 18 date for Tri-County’s customers to meet and vote on whether to fire the board. However, the board did not set an official meeting date.

Asked why, board Chairman Heath Hill told the crowd, “The attorneys are going to have to look over all this stuff.”

Co-op staffers said they will send out notices if the Aug. 18 meeting date is confirmed.

Joe Henry Smith, an 80-year-old Elloree resident, was not satisfied.

“Y’all have run this train off the track,” he said moments after stepping up to a microphone. “It’s time you catch hell.”

Reach Wilks at 803-374-3115. Follow him on Twitter @AveryGWilks