Politics & Government

SC utility’s customers fired their board after pay scandal. Now, they’re taking over

New board takes over Tri-County after pay scandal

The new Tri-County board met for the first time after the previous board was removed by co-op members in August.
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The new Tri-County board met for the first time after the previous board was removed by co-op members in August.

Back in July, when the board of her electric cooperative hid in a backroom to avoid angry customers at its monthly meeting, Barbara Weston grabbed a microphone and announced she was starting the meeting herself.

Standing before 80 other Tri-County Electric customers, the 64-year-old Eastover resident aired their collective grievances: The co-op’s part-time board had paid themselves handsomely at the expense of Tri-County’s customer-owners, given themselves health and life insurance, and rigged the election process for board members to protect themselves.

“That’s our money,” she shouted. “It is not fair. It is not right, and we are not trusting them with any more of our money or our time.”

Six months and a customer revolt later, Weston now leads the Midlands co-op’s board. The retired teacher and eight other newly elected directors took their seats in Tri-County’s board room for the first time Thursday night, electing Weston as board president with their first vote.

The reform-minded group has promised to usher in a new era of accountability and transparency after years of self-dealing led the co-op’s customers this summer to fire the entire board in a historic meeting.

“I put everything back to the people who decided it was time to make a change,” Weston said Thursday night. “They voiced it. We ran with it.”

In an otherwise routine meeting Thursday night, the new board elected officers, named delegates to state and national co-op groups, reviewed safety reports and considered energy efficiency programs.

But the significance of the occasion wasn’t lost on anyone present. It was a moment months in the making, after Tri-County’s 13,600 customers in six Midlands counties took on their power company’s leadership and won.

After The State’s reporting this summer on the Tri-County board’s unusually high pay, secretive practices and expensive perks, those customers circulated a petition calling for a special vote on whether to oust the entire Tri-County board.

When they got enough signatures, more than 1,500 customers packed a Saturday meeting in August and overwhelmingly voted to fire the board. It was the first time customers had done so in the 80-year history of South Carolina’s 20 electric co-ops.

Tri-County’s customers elected an entirely new board in November, including a handful of trustees — like Weston — who had pushed their neighbors to oust the former board. Another notable name, former S.C. State University football coach Willie Jeffries, also was elected to the board.

“We did what we were supposed to do as a community,” said. E.C. Nelson, a Lower Richland retiree and community organizer who helped circulate the petition. Nelson attended Thursday’s board meeting, saying he wanted to see the new board of “hard workers and positive people” in action.

Some changes were already evident. The board scheduled the meeting for 6 p.m., at a time when working customers could make it. The previous board met at 12:30 p.m. on Thursdays, and customers virtually never came.

In an effort to save money, the board also has begun holding its subcommittee meetings on the same day as the full monthly meeting. The State reported that the previous board frequently scheduled the shorter subcommittee meetings on separate days, and members accepted a $450 per diem payment for each of them.

Tri-County Chief Executive Chad Lowder said the co-op also is putting more information — including the co-op’s financial documents and tax forms — for customers on its website. Previously, customers had to come to one of Tri-County’s offices to pick up those documents.

That’s, in part, why many of those customers were surprised to learn their part-time board made about $52,000 per member, on average, in 2016 — three times the national average for co-op board members.

Lowder noted that in the wake of the Tri-County scandal, several S.C. legislators have proposed a new law requiring more transparency at all S.C. electric co-ops. The co-op has already made many of those changes voluntarily, he said.

“It’s been a breath of fresh air with the new board,” Lowder said.

The new board knows customers will be watching after the recent scandal, Weston said. She said the new board will be much more focused on saving money for their customers.

“I know that they’re paying attention. They call. They meet you in the street. They meet you in the store,” she said. “We can look into ways of saving them money. We’re going to look at this as if it were our own money because, in essence, it is.”

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Avery G. Wilks is The State’s senior S.C. State House and politics reporter. He was named the 2018 S.C. Journalist of the Year by the South Carolina Press Association. He grew up in Chester, S.C., and graduated from the University of South Carolina’s top-ranked Honors College in 2015.