In early April, Gibson Electric Membership Corporation held its annual members meeting. The cooperative’s board and management submitted an annual report to the members. Bylaw and policy changes were proposed, discussed and approved by the membership who attended. This is a democratic process that will be repeated at all of our co-ops by the end of 2017. Every member of every electric cooperative has the opportunity to participate in the governance of his or her co-op.
Cooperatives around the world operate according to the same set of core principles and values adopted by the International Co-operative Alliance. We trace the roots of these principles to the first modern cooperative founded in Rochdale, England, in 1844. These principles are a key reason that America’s electric cooperatives operate differently from many other utilities, putting the needs of their members first.
The second principle, Democratic Member Control, states, “Cooperatives are democratic organizations controlled by their members, who actively participate in setting policies and making decisions. Elected representatives are elected from among the membership and are accountable to the membership. In primary cooperatives (like electric co-ops), members have equal voting rights; cooperatives at other levels are organized in a democratic manner.”
Electric utilities use similar equipment, poles and wires to deliver electricity, but the similarities end there. Our not-for-profit, consumer-owned business model and commitment to our rural and suburban communities require that we engage with our members on a much deeper level.
This year, our cooperatives — led by their members — have a new opportunity to consider. The Tennessee Broadband Accessibility Act allows electric cooperatives to provide broadband access that will help keep rural communities on par with more densely populated areas. It is a big undertaking, and it will not happen quickly. Just like the early leaders who built the first power lines, it will take careful planning and deliberation to provide broadband in an economically feasible manner.
More than ever before, we need to involve our members in the process. It is critical that we listen to their needs and thoroughly communicate the opportunities and challenges of developing broadband in our rural and suburban service areas. Keep the co-op principles front and center as your co-op considers the development of a broadband network.