May 20, 2010; Source: Billings Gazette | Some of the nation’s longstanding rural electric coops, organizations with New Deal roots, seem to have strayed from their nonprofit and cooperative origins. This story describes the tussle between the Southern Montana Electric Generation and Transmission Cooperative and representatives of the Beartooth Electric Cooperative, who were denied permission to attend the coop’s board meeting and ask questions.

The Beartooth people came armed with a city attorney opinion that the meeting was open under the state’s right-to-know laws, but Billings police told them that the meeting was closed and they had not been invited. The Beartooth people have been pressing for information about Southern’s finances affecting electric rates and power plant investments. The head of the Beartooth group is also a member of Citizens for Clean Energy and appears to have questions about Southern’s investment in a power plant in Great Falls.

The city attorney’s right-to-know ruling was based on Southern’s being “supported in whole or in part by public funds as well as expend(ing) public funds for its capital ventures.” Here at NPQ, we can’t say whether all or even a majority of rural electric coops are behaving as uncooperatively as this article and others portray Southern, but over the years, we have heard of a number that have been less than welcoming to input from their members and customers and some that seem to be seriously influenced by “big coal.”

Maybe to some, these rural electric cooperatives are historical anachronisms, long since having shed all but the nomenclature of cooperatives to function just like for-profit power companies and sometimes hand-in-glove with the coal industry. Southern itself had planned for a coal-fired plant, but advocacy from some of its member coops as well as environmentalists got it to shift to a gas-fired plant concept. Nonetheless, there have been controversies about the plant, questions about its financing, and charges on occasion that the electric coop has been less than forthcoming with its own members, the ratepayers, and the City of Great Falls. One would hope that rural electric cooperatives would express the best principles of democratic management, transparent operations, and environmental protection.—Rick Cohen