Transparency among points of contention for candidates in Tri-County Electric board runoff

dfwnewsa | December 6, 2023 | 1 | Fort Worth , Fort Worth News

Transparency among points of contention for candidates in Tri-County Electric board runoff

Tri-County Electric Cooperative District 4 board incumbent Jerry Walden (left) is in a runoff election with David Miller (right). (Courtesy photos)
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As Tri-County Electric navigates the aftermath of the bankruptcy of its energy provider, Brazos Electric, and an ongoing lawsuit filed against the board by the co-op’s former CEO, customers are set to vote on whether to keep an incumbent or vote in a new board member during an upcoming election. 

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Some customers and advocates say Tri-County Electric’s board should be more transparent. The question has been a point of contention among candidates. 

Tri-County is the third-largest co-op in Texas, with more than 115,000 members in 16 counties, including Tarrant and Parker. Cooperatives were formed under the Rural Electrification Act of 1935 to encourage bringing electricity to rural areas.

At a cooperative, members are the owners of the company, said Tom Seng, assistant professor of professional practice in energy finance at Texas Christian University’s Ralph Lowe Energy Institute. Co-op members elect a board to represent them. 

“They really are an oversight approval board that’s supposed to look out for the best interests of the members of the co-op itself,” Seng said. 

Tri-County Electric has a board of nine directors. Each director’s term is three years, and three director terms expire every year, according to the co-op’s website. 

This year, District 2 director Margaret Koprek and District 1’s Kevin Ingle, who both represent areas of Fort Worth, ran unopposed during the election held in September. 

None of District 4’s four candidates received a majority of votes, inspiring a runoff election. Now, cooperative customers will vote between incumbent Jerry Walden and new candidate David Miller. 

Jerry Walden is the co-owner of the family-owned Walden Farm and Ranch Supply, according to his bio page. He’s been a board member since 1999. During the September candidate forum, he said that he would continue to play a role in the organization’s strategic planning to usher the cooperative into the next generation.

“I believe, with the population growth that we have in our co-op area and the state of Texas, that one of the most important things is to stay planned ahead for many years,” he said. 

David Miller is the city manager of Springtown, located about 26 miles outside of Fort Worth. He said he wants to increase the transparency and communication at the cooperative, including at board meetings.“Open and honest communication is the key to a successful organization regardless of what that organization is,” Miller said during the forum.

Voting runs until 5 p.m. Dec. 20, and every member can vote regardless of which district they reside in, according to the cooperative’s website. 

The question of transparency, role of cooperative board 

One of the country’s largest electric co-ops, Pedernales Electric Cooperative, crafted changes designed to increase transparency for customers following a controversy in which a judge found a former cooperative manager guilty of felony theft. Changes were described as a “member’s bill of rights,” and included adopting open meetings and records and implementing live streams of board meetings. 

Some members of Tri-County Electric hope for an evolution of similar transparency. 

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Lonnie Holder is frustrated with the rising electric rate following the bankruptcy of Tri-County Electric’s wholesale power supplier, Brazos Electric Power Cooperative Inc., after the 2021 winter storm. A member of the cooperative since 2017, Holder said he feels as if he has no say in the decisions at the cooperative.“We can’t attend a board meeting,” he said. “We can’t visit with anybody. They won’t take your phone calls.” 

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Annie Watson, spokesperson for Tri-County Electric Cooperative, said in an email that members can request to speak to the board by contacting the co-op and filling out a form to request to talk to the board — the submitted form is then reviewed by the CEO and the chairman of the board. The board does not have minutes posted on its website and does not allow recordings of the meetings, according to the form.

The level of transparency that a cooperative board should have was one of the focus points of Tri-County Electric’s board candidate forum in September. 

Board members, such as District 1’s Ingle, said the level of transparency is a sticky question. 

“We have to make sure our financials are kept relatively secret, so that we’re in a competitive bidding opportunity with our suppliers, with our vendors,” Ingle said. “It’s not that we don’t want to be transparent. Most things that we can be transparent on, we absolutely are. That’s why we have the member comments. That’s why we have town hall meetings.”

Miller, who’s in the runoff for District 4, said he understands that some aspects of the cooperative need to be confidential, but wants to redefine the level of transparency the board has with its members. “I think our membership has the right to know where the money is being spent,” Miller said.

Phil Kenkel, regents professor and Bill Fitzwater cooperative chair at Oklahoma State University, said boards of directors have almost total authority of cooperatives. They sign loans, hire the CEO and have other duties. 

Many cooperatives have business reasons for keeping board meetings confidential, though members of a cooperative are technically owners, he said. For instance, if the cooperative wants to buy a piece of land and that is communicated to the public, it could compromise parts of the deal. 

“If you communicate that, then everybody’s going to jack up the price or maybe your competitor buys it,” Kenkel said. “A lot of the board’s responsibility is keeping things quiet so that they can adequately manage the business.” 

On the other hand, some advocates say cooperatives have become less democratic over the years. Jake Schlachter, executive director of the cooperative advocacy group We Own It, said the function of a board is to serve the members of the cooperative. He said very few electric cooperatives work that way. 

“There’s still a few that allow members to attend all the board meetings and speak at board meetings … (but) there’s fewer and fewer,” Schlachter said.Schlachter said transparency is usually increased by members getting bylaw amendments passed at annual member meetings or calling special meetings in order to change the bylaws to increase transparency and accountability. 

Members of Tri-County Electric Cooperative can vote by mail, email and online. More information about the election can be found on the cooperative’s website. 

Seth Bodine is a business and economic development reporter for the Fort Worth Report. Contact him at seth.bodine@fortworthreport.org and follow on Twitter @sbodine120. 

At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.

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