A Grassroots Institution 

by Richard G. Johnstone Jr., Editor

Richard Johnstone
Richard Johnstone

After those upstart colonists defeated King George III and the British in the Revolutionary War, many New England towns and villages flexed their newfound democratic muscles by holding town meetings every year. At these gatherings, local folks would (and still do) discuss matters of mutual concern, from the mundane to the critically important, from roads to taxes. These meetings continue today, normally on a weekday in March, after the cold has broken but before the onslaught of mud season, and are a sweetly iconic reminder of the grassroots nature of the American experience and its insistence on an equal voice for all.

The Annual Meeting of your electric cooperative is its version of the venerable New England Town Meeting. Several cooperatives in Virginia held their annual meetings in June, and nine more co-ops will hold theirs over the next three months. The timing of the annual meeting is linked to the cooperative’s rural roots, to a time when every rural family’s life was synchronized with the rhythms of the seasons. So after spring planting had been completed, and before the fall harvest, rural folks would gather on a lazy summer afternoon or evening with their friends and neighbors to discuss their member-owned electric utility.

The annual meeting is thus symbolic of the democratic nature of the electric cooperative as a strongly local, strongly grassroots institution, but it’s also the hub for conducting the affairs of what is, after all, an electric utility business.  

And while the electric cooperative annual meeting doesn’t feature discussions of roads and taxes (although these topics have been hot items for debate in virtually every corner of the Commonwealth for the last few years), it does feature, like its New England cousins, elections of board members, consideration of needed bylaws changes, and reports on the progress of the past year.

For those folks who only recently moved onto cooperative lines, a natural question is surely: Why should I spend a morning, or afternoon, or evening going to a meeting of my electric utility, and why the heck are they holding the meeting anyway? The answer lies, as did the reason for the meeting’s timing, in the cooperative’s rural roots.

And in its grassroots, as well. Cooperatives were founded in the 1930s and ’40s by local men and women in more than a dozen rural communities across Virginia, and in almost a thousand across the country, to provide these sparsely populated areas with a service that the big power companies had no interest in providing: electricity. From the start, then, cooperatives were rural, grassroots-driven, participatory mini-democracies. The consumers (we call them member-owners) would (and still do) elect from among their ranks the members of the board of directors, which then selects the general manager. The member-owners were and are also responsible for considering and approving the cooperative’s bylaws, and any bylaws changes.

And, in keeping with our business structure as a cooperative, we operate at cost, charging our member-owners what it costs us to generate or purchase the electricity, and then deliver it to the door (actually, of course, we deliver it to the meter; it’s safer that way!).

So the reason for the annual meeting is twofold: First, as a member-owned business, your cooperative is legally obligated to hold such a meeting. But secondly, and perhaps more importantly, your cooperative wants you to know about and understand the operation of your business, and the role it plays in making your community a better place to live, work, raise a family, and retire.

And while the landscape of America, and Virginia, and our service areas has changed seismically over the last 65 years, the reason for your cooperative’s existence has not. Cooperatives still serve, on average, far fewer homes and businesses per mile than large power companies or municipal utilities, even in our most populous areas. Cooperatives serve much of the Commonwealth’s most challenging terrain, too, over mountains, through woods and fields, delivering electricity to areas that would be difficult for a large power company to serve profitably, but which cooperatives are able to serve at affordable rates because we provide the power at cost. 

And the fact is, because of our local presence, the quality of the service provided by electric cooperatives is stellar and customer-satisfaction levels are the highest in the industry. Also, of course, if there are “margins” (profits) left over at the end of the year, your cooperative later returns them to you and the other member-owners when the financial condition of the cooperative permits.

So, in summary, your cooperative is about: Service provided at cost. Service quality that’s second to none. Service provided by local people, operating a local business owned by the members of the community.

Is such a grassroots institution worth celebrating once a year through a gathering of its member-owners?

We think so. But while we may gather together as a democratic body only once a year, your cooperative’s board members and employees are committed to serving your best interests every hour of every day of every year.


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