Politics & Government

Customers of Midlands power company move to fire board members who hiked their own pay

Barry Hutto, left, and Jeff Reeves, right, resigned from the Tri-County Electric Cooperative board last Thursday at the co-op's annual meeting. Hutto and Reeves said they were frustrated that some members of the board had fought a plan to rein in board pay.
Barry Hutto, left, and Jeff Reeves, right, resigned from the Tri-County Electric Cooperative board last Thursday at the co-op's annual meeting. Hutto and Reeves said they were frustrated that some members of the board had fought a plan to rein in board pay. awilks@thestate.com

Midlands power customers furious over the high pay of Tri-County Electric Cooperative board members have gathered enough signatures on a petition to throw the six remaining board members out of office.

More than 1,400 Tri-County customers in Calhoun, Orangeburg, Richland, Lexington, Kershaw and Sumter counties have signed the petition, reaching the number required to force a special meeting to fire the entire board. Such a move would be unprecedented in the nearly 80-year history of S.C. electric cooperatives.

The tiny Midlands co-op has been embroiled in controversy since The State revealed in May that its part-time board members had awarded themselves pay and insurance benefits worth triple the national average for the boards of similar utilities.

The co-op’s nine-member board made about $52,000 each in 2016, far more than their counterparts at South Carolina’s 19 other co-ops.

Since that meeting, hundreds of Tri-County’s 13,600 customers have packed community meetings to ask, among other things:

Why the co-op’s board held 50 meetings last year — four times more than required — and board members pocketed a $450-a-day allowance for each meeting

Why some board members gave themselves lifetime health insurance coverage

Why some board members — after tentatively agreeing to lower their pay — actively campaigned against cutting that pay, a proposal which was defeated narrowly at the co-op’s May annual customer meeting.

Some of those customers circulated a petition to throw the board out of office, collecting more than the 1,360 signatures required to call a special meeting.

The board's president, Eastover farmer Heath Hill, has declined to answer questions from The State. He also did not directly answer those questions — posed by customers — at a June 21 Tri-County meeting, aside from saying that the board had voluntarily done away with its lifetime health insurance. Those benefits could be reinstated at any board meeting, since the proposal to remove them permanently was defeated in May.

"The community and the (customers) are very upset about this," said E.C. Nelson, a 79-year-old retiree and Lower Richland resident who helped circulate the petition. "We want this thing cleared up so we can go forward. ... I want the board members to be honest and truthful, and let the (customers) know what's going on."

Two lawsuits have been filed against the co-op's board on behalf of Tri-County’s customers. Collectively, they seek to lower the board's pay, claw back the board's "excessive" compensation, distribute it to customers and kick the board members out of office.

In June, the Electric Cooperatives of South Carolina — the association of the state's 20 electric co-ops — also called on the Tri-County board to resign.

The nine-member board is down to six members, who have refused calls to step down. Former members Barry Hutto and Jeff Reeves, who supported the proposal to cut Tri-County’s board pay, submitted their resignations in protest on May 17, the night the pay-cut plan was defeated. Former board member Billy Shannon also resigned then, but it is unclear why.

It also is not yet clear when the special meeting will be held.

At least 600 Tri-County customers must attend the meeting for the vote to take effect. Board members also must be offered the microphone and a chance to explain why they should remain in office, according to Tri-County chief executive Chad Lowder.

Reach Wilks at 803-771-8362. Follow him on Twitter @AveryGWilks.
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