Politics & Government

After board pay scandal, SC electric co-ops to get state oversight

‘This is democracy in action:’ 1,000+ show up to fire Tri-County Electric’s board

More than 1,000 customers showed up Saturday morning for a vote on whether to fire Tri-County Electric Cooperative's board. Records showed the board members had spent thousands on committee meetings and bonuses.
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More than 1,000 customers showed up Saturday morning for a vote on whether to fire Tri-County Electric Cooperative's board. Records showed the board members had spent thousands on committee meetings and bonuses.

S.C. lawmakers have passed a bill aimed at making the state’s 20 electric cooperatives more transparent and accountable to their customers, who jointly own the rural power distributors.

The proposal also would give the scantly regulated co-ops oversight by the state for the first time, letting the state’s utility watchdog investigate them and raise red flags if the co-op is breaking laws or misspending money.

The bill’s 42-0 passage in the Senate Wednesday comes nearly a year after The State reported that part-time board members of St. Matthews-based Tri-County Electric were enriching themselves with high pay, expensive benefits and inappropriate perks — all with their customers’ money.

The scandal led more than 1,500 Tri-County customers to call a historic meeting and fire the entire board. It also brought new scrutiny to the little known world of electric co-ops, where part-time boards have enjoyed high pay and expensive perks paid by customers who are kept in the dark about co-op business.

The bill was sponsored by state Rep. Russell Ott, a Calhoun Democrat who represents many of Tri-County’s customers. It already has passed the House and will become law with the signature of Republican Gov. Henry McMaster.

H. 3415 also would require co-ops to:

Notify their customer-owners of board meetings 10 days in advance and publish records of their meetings for customers to review. Before last year, that information was rarely available.

Prohibit S.C. co-op board members from filling board vacancies themselves. In the past, co-op boards have filled vacancies with friends and relatives.

Steer co-ops away from self-dealing by barring board members from having a business relationship — such as working as a contractor — with the utility they governor. The proposal also prohibits co-op directors from having the co-op hire their family members.

Make it easier for co-op customers to vote in board elections by holding early voting and requiring polling machines to stay open for at least four hours on voting day.

Prohibit board candidates from campaigning within a certain distance of a co-op’s annual meeting, when members are voting in board elections.

State Sen. Sandy Senn, R-Charleston, praised the bill’s disclosure requirements but asked that the proposal also require high-paid employees’ salaries be disclosed.

“This might be a perfect bill for us to allow sunshine on what executives make at co-ops,” the Charleston Republican said during a Tuesday debate on the bill.

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.
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