An American Tradition

by Richard G. Johnstone Jr., Exec. Editor

Richard Johnstone

The desire to assemble is as old as humankind. To communicate. To commiserate. To celebrate. To share news and views, or to share a meal; these are all ingrained human tendencies, deeply rooted in our DNA. We’re social animals, and we enjoy spending time with others, especially family, friends and neighbors.

This desire is especially precious to us as Americans. Our country’s founders, in fact, guaranteed us the right to assemble with others, freely and peaceably.

And from this amalgam of natural inclination and national right, several venerable American institutions were born. The town hall meeting. The protest march. The public square debate.

And, of course, the electric cooperative annual meeting. Yes, for some 75 years now, many thousands of rural, suburban and small-town citizens gather each year in almost 1,000 communities across the country, in 47 of our 50 states, and make decisions about their customer-owned utility. They gather in co-op meeting rooms and garage bays, in local school auditoriums, at open-air pavilions and county fairgrounds, and in civic centers and community colleges. They share fellowship and food with neighbors, oftentimes to the spirited sounds of gospel, bluegrass or country music from local performers. 

They listen to reports from management about the financial and operational condition of their utility. And perhaps most importantly, they elect the board members who will represent their interests, and vote on changes or additions to the bylaws that govern the utility they own.

It’s an old-fashioned exercise in democracy that’s both refreshing and resilient, a living reminder of a time when civics was still widely taught in school; when neighbors would gather regularly to catch up on news; and when citizens would get together to make important decisions about their shared welfare, about the place that all of them call home.

As a locally owned and controlled business, the employees and board members of your local electric cooperative really do share a home with you and all the other folks they serve.

Between early June, as spring’s warmth wafts into summer’s golden heat, and late September, as fall’s chill begins to paint the leaves of our hardwoods, each of Virginia’s 13 electric cooperatives will hold its annual meeting.

You’re invited — indeed encouraged — to attend your cooperative’s meeting, and to take part in the business of your electric utility. Perhaps especially if you’ve never attended before, 2012 would be a great time to do so. This year, across the globe, customer-owned businesses are celebrating the International Year of Cooperatives. Cooperative businesses of all kinds — from housing and babysitting co-ops, to agricultural cooperatives, to financing co-ops and credit unions, to your electric cooperative — are calling attention to the many benefits of the cooperative business model.

In a cooperative, the customer-owners have democratic control of the business, making important decisions about their company. As not-for-profit businesses, products and services are delivered at cost to the customer-owners. If there are surpluses after a given year of operations, these surpluses, called “margins,” are later returned to the customer-owners when the financial condition of the cooperative permits.

And, of course, every cooperative is deeply embedded in the fabric of the community it serves, with local folks elected to the board, and local folks serving as employees. Their interest is solely to provide the best possible service at the lowest possible cost to their neighbors.

So, this summer, please consider attending your cooperative’s annual meeting. You’ll hear important reports about high-tech issues affecting both the electric utility industry, as well as your local utility. But just as importantly, you’ll be taking part in a decidedly low-tech American tradition, one that unabashedly and unashamedly celebrates what’s possible when neighbors join in common cause, whether to raise a barn ... hold back a rising river ... or electrify a community. 


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