Opinion Extra

Results of Tri-County scandal ‘a testament to the power of an informed community’

Members of the Tri-County Electric Co-op gathered in St. Matthews to express their disapproval of the board of directors who didn’t show up for the meeting in August.
Members of the Tri-County Electric Co-op gathered in St. Matthews to express their disapproval of the board of directors who didn’t show up for the meeting in August. The State file photo

Tri-County Electric Cooperative members spent the past six months working collaboratively to oust the entire Tri-County board for abuses surrounding board compensation and other possible wrongdoing. Co-op members across Tri-County’s six-county service area collected more than 1,600 signatures on petitions, held community meetings, attended Tri-County board meetings — ones properly announced and those unannounced — to amass enough member support for a special member called meeting. As a result, the entire board was ousted in August by a vote of more than 1,400 to 30. Tri-County co-op members followed their member-approved bylaws throughout the entire process, and on Nov. 17, they elected nine new members to the Tri-County Electric Cooperative board. Working with co-op members in their grassroots effort was for me a testament to the power of an informed community.

Tri-County Electric Cooperative members did their jobs under the bylaws and held the former board accountable, the media did its job by reporting the facts and covering what was transpiring at Tri-County, the Tri-County executive team did their job by providing accurate information to Tri-County members, and the process yielded a workable solution. Now, other co-ops across the state are reviewing their bylaws and working to make changes to further empower their members. The current effort by some lawmakers to introduce legislation to regulate co-ops in South Carolina is not well received by co-op members in my district. It was not an easy or whimsical task to remove the entire board and nor should it have been. But, the co-op’s bylaws, simplistically written and approved by co-op members, empowered its membership with that ability. While I am sure legislators who are seeking to pass new laws to regulate electric co-ops are well-meaning, the opposite effect may be the outcome. One only has to look at what is taking place now with SCANA to understand that legislative regulation and government oversight can lead to protracted and expensive legal battles with bad results.

Historically, electric co-ops were federally formed to provide electric power service in rural communities where no service previously existed. Co-ops were designed to give those rural communities the authority to act on their own behalf through their elected boards. I can say firsthand that the existing process works and can be revised as needed by co-op members. The $9 billion SCANA debacle will most likely produce lawsuits that will go on for years. SCANA customers have essentially no say in how the company operates. By contrast, Tri-County Electric Cooperative members have options and were able to timely exercise those options. I am hopeful that my colleagues in the Legislature will join me in focusing our efforts on ensuring the completion of the ongoing investigations into possible criminal wrongdoing by former Tri-County Electric Cooperative board members. Accountability is the best way to protect co-op members and ensure that board abuses are not repeated at any other electric cooperative in South Carolina. Activism, community engagement and accountability beat paternalistic legislation, and in the long run, may produce better results.

Rep. Brawley, D-Richland, represents District 70.