Avery Wilks’ article, “High pay and expensive perks: Has ‘absolute power’ corrupted SC electric co-ops?” was both disappointing and hopeful. It showed that self-governance can be challenging if a few people abuse the system, but it also showed how members respond and how cooperatives listen.
One of the reasons cooperatives are responsive to our members is that our members govern themselves democratically.
Democracy at the state’s electric cooperatives has produced remarkable outcomes for consumers: cost-saving innovations, economic development progress and initiatives that lift up those in need in communities across the state.
But self-governance isn’t always easy. In fact, it can be messy. Challenges arise as they do in a church, a school or a community where people organize themselves to accomplish good things.
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When leadership problems at one co-op were raised over the past few months by local co-op members, legislators and journalists, 20 electric cooperatives across the state responded by taking action. They collected and organized information in response to journalists’ requests, and they began the process of reviewing their policies and practices in order to improve them. They are still working, and they will continue to work until these issues are resolved.
Readers were surely shocked by the scene captured in The State’s July article about nearly 100 members attending their cooperative board meeting, shouting for their board members to resign. As uncomfortable as that scene might be, I was encouraged to see local cooperative members in attendance. They were there because it is their cooperative and they are dedicated to holding their cooperative’s leadership accountable.
When challenges like these arise, we must embrace the opportunity to make South Carolina’s electric cooperatives stronger than they were before. This is our legacy, and it produces solutions that address unique challenges facing the communities we serve.
For example, one electric cooperative executive trying to improve the lives of people in the Lowcountry started Operation Round-Up, a program where members voluntarily round up their monthly bill to the next highest dollar to help neighbors in need. This simple idea has now changed lives through each of the 350 Operation Round-Up programs across the country. An estimated $35 million has been contributed to local co-op members in the past 29 years.
Two Midlands cooperatives are using the high-speed fiber lines they need for electric system communication to also provide broadband service.
In 2014, to address poor economic opportunities in some of the communities we serve, electric cooperatives adopted a deliberate and aggressive strategy to jump start job growth and attract capital investment.
South Carolina’s 20 independent cooperatives, taken as a whole, surpassed their two primary five-year objectives — new jobs and capital investment — by the end of year four, with more than 25,000 new jobs announced and $5 billion in capital investment pledged. The achievement was unprecedented in the co-ops’ economic development history. Rural and non-urban areas need the economic growth. As important: It proves that they can grow with the right help.
Electric cooperatives are also bridging the digital divide. Members simply do not have the same access to opportunity if they live where they can’t get high-speed and affordable internet access. Moms should not have to drive their kids to the local fast food restaurant to access its wi-fi network to do homework. Two Midlands cooperatives are using the high-speed fiber lines they need for electric system communication to also provide broadband service. Why? It is part of the cooperative mission to make this a better place to live, work and raise a family.
Over the course of our nearly 80-year history, electric cooperatives have grown as South Carolina has grown and have adapted to the ever-changing needs of the people we serve.
As electric cooperative leaders deal with the challenges facing us today, we pledge continued work with our members and with elected officials to address their concerns, to be accountable and transparent, to maintain the trust they continue to have in us and to regain any trust we may have lost in this process.
Mr. Couick is president and CEO of the Electric Cooperatives of South Carolina; contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.