In 2014 Rappahannock Electric Cooperative began holding annual “Get Connected” events each May. These were open to all co-op members and featuring free dinner and entertainment such as bands and dancers. The food is good, the entertainment is top-notch, and the dinners are often very well-attended. REC rotates the Get Connected locations around the co-op’s service territory each year. And each year the co-op promotes the event heavily in the area surrounding the dinner location. REC has also always announced the dinner a month or two ahead of time in Cooperative Living, the free monthly magazine that goes to all REC members.
This year there was a subtle but important change that most REC members likely didn’t notice. The event, held on June 6 outside Winchester in an area with many thousands of REC members, was moved a few weeks later to June. And while REC promoted the dinner heavily in a few counties around Winchester, there was no advance notice in Cooperative Living.
What else was different about this year? For the first time in more than a decade (and likely much longer) all three REC board seats up for election this summer have candidates challenging incumbent board members. What’s more, three of the challengers — Mike Biniek of Rappahannock County, Jack Manzari, and Andrea Miller — are running a coordinated, issue-based campaign. That hasn’t been done before. The proxy form/ballots arrive in all co-op members’ mailboxes in just a couple of weeks with the July issue of Cooperative Living, on or around July 1. Votes can be cast by mail or online as soon as the forms arrive. So June is prime board-campaign season.
We’ve written previously how the REC board’s unusual and unfair election practices allow the incumbent board members to all but control election outcomes. And that no doubt plays a significant role in why handsomely paid incumbent board members tend to stay on the board for decades, if not life. Because of REC’s failure to announce the Get Connected dinner in Cooperative Living this year the challenging board candidates did not know about it, and thus had no opportunity to attend and mingle with voters in the upcoming election. All three incumbent board members running for re-election did attend the dinner and no doubt did plenty of meeting and greeting. Given the good food and quality entertainment, and with 1,000 people attending this year, it’s likely that this Get Connected dinner cost the cooperative $15,000 or more. (We asked REC a year ago to tell us how much the co-op spends on the Get Connected dinners. It refused to tell us.)
When asked why REC failed this year to follow its five-year practice of always announcing Get Connected dinners in Cooperative Living, a REC spokesman said “space was limited” in the magazine. Even accepting that explanation at face value, one wonders why no one in REC management or on the board notified the four challenging candidates of the dinner. The event was obviously planned months ahead of time. Management and board members knew about it well in advance. And senior management and incumbent board members recently met with the four challenging board candidates.
As a matter of basic fairness, transparency, and democracy, the four challenging board candidates should have been told of the dinner. One of the challenging candidates, Rappahannock County’s Mike Biniek, even lives in REC Board Region I, in which the dinner was held. Yet he too was not notified, and REC did not promote the event in Biniek’s portion of the heavily gerrymandered Board Region 1.
At last August’s REC annual meeting, REC CEO Kent Farmer was asked about the co-op’s practice of having incumbent board members control board election outcomes by controlling thousands of “member undesignated” proxy votes. In trying to defend the co-op’s unusual election practice Farmer said that trying to overcome the 3,000-plus vote headstart given to board-favored candidates “is the responsibility of the [challenging] candidate.” Farmer pointed out that to be successful, challenging board candidates should be “showing up at social events or civic events to let [co-op] members know, ‘hey I’m so-and-so and I’m running for a seat on Rappahannock’s board. I’d like your support and these are the things that I’d like to bring to the board.’”
No doubt REC’s three incumbent board candidates did just that at the June 11, REC-financed dinner for co-op members. The four challenging candidates didn’t have the chance.
REC still has a long way to go in living up to the core cooperative principles of genuine democracy and fair election practices. We need new board members committed to those principles, who will ensure that REC management commits to them too.
The writers are co-founders of Repower REC, a campaign to reform Rappahannock Electric Cooperative.