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BEC should stay transparent

By: 
Eleanor Guerrero
BEC Member

Right now, Beartooth Electric Cooperative (BEC) is considering its board obligations under the bylaws to its members. Dec. 14th’s board meeting will include, if it can be assumed from the last meeting, the issues of transparency and accessibility of board members to members and media.
In the Nov. meeting, there was a short discussion of who and how to report to members. Should the board be responsive to media? Should members and media be given access or should they be totally restricted and directed only to the manager for answers to their questions?
It was not too long ago, that the board membership underwent a complete transformation. There was a reason for this. Lack of transparency was a major complaint at the time.
Southern Montana Electric Generation and Transmission Cooperative, Inc. (Southern), a company whose board, along with BEC’s board representative, had signed agreements to purchase power and build a coal power plant with assets and liabilities up to half a billion dollars for the little coop of less than 10,000 members and had set a 20 percent rate hike.
This past should not be so quickly forgotten. Great secrecy occurred during this time when even board members were having trouble getting answers to their questions. It was the courage of board members who started speaking up to members and to the media that started public awareness and gave the push against these agreements’ momentum.
Some board members were called “rogue” by speaking up and made some board members or the manager “uncomfortable” to say the least. But it exposed and brought out the issues.
CCN and other area papers publicized the issues and strove to bring understanding to complex issues. Media provided a service to the community.
Contracts were canceled, a power plant not built, and BEC survived the bankruptcy. This was no little feat. Likewise those board members accomplished no little feat in bucking the desire, the comfort, of secrecy.
Being a rural cooperative, with members in Montana and Wyoming as now, it is often hard to get to meetings. Those who did attend might remember loud voices expressing disgust at the lack of answers and transparency.
As a result of that experience, a lot of goodwill and trust was lost. Members became angry and started to act. A new board was elected. They pushed to become more involved, volunteering their expertise and joining committees.
Through financial and business expertise the board did not fully possess, the committees added significant contributions to the final decision to leave Southern. BEC was able to act independent of the other co-ops, and miraculously, it managed not to go down with Southern.
The new board was happy to share information and repeatedly stressed its transparency. Now that Southern is behind it, some of the BEC board is expressing a preference that this openness not be so open any more. Why not delegate all communications to management?
This, it is herein suggested, is a major step. It should not be taken lightly. It is a step back from “full transparency.”
Why would any board in good faith insist on its board not speaking? There may be some good reasons like a common message or less liability but isn’t the greater consideration, especially considering BEC’s very recent past, that continuing trust is crucial? One aspect promoting transparency is the ability to speak to a board member. Should taking away this important access even be up for consideration?
While it may be inconvenient or irritating to hear a board member express a different opinion or perspective to a member or the media, it is submitted that increasing the comfort level of the board or management is not a valid reason to be considered in shackling a board member’s voice.
This is not a corporation but a small, rural membership cooperative. Shouldn’t a co-op board be even more accountable?
A practice that has stood “new BEC” in good stead and in fact, has consistently garnered high praise from its members through this transition should not be abandoned so lightly. It is from the insight of public and member exposure of individual board members’ perspectives that give depth to the decisions made and the support of the members. Members feel engaged when they can ask their board a question or listen to their views. Board members are elected because they are trusted.
Members supported the post-Southern board because of the overt stress on accessibility and transparency. These values should be given serious consideration before members and media are forbidden to speak to a board member.

Submitted by Eleanor Guerrero
BEC Member

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