Opportunity and risk reside in an electric cooperative’s policies about sharing information with members, says William “Bill” James.
James has the advantage of seeing that issue from the point of a view as an experienced board member of Florida’s SECO Energy and Seminole Electric G&T, where he also was once the Vice President of Operations.
The 81-year-old James also served as CEO and President of Northeastern REMC in Indiana, and in executive operations and engineering positions for co-op G&Ts in Kentucky, Florida and Indiana. Before joining the co-ops, he began his career at Florida Power & Light, where he worked 18 years as an engineer and managerial training executive.
An Effective Route to Trust
Speaking from his wealth of experience, James says a robust policy of sharing information can be the most effective way for any co-op to become the trusted energy advisor for members.
“When such a policy tilts toward greater sharing, you cause yourself more activity in your interactions with members, but it is welcome because it is the
right kind of activity,” James says. “It leads to more involvement. More involvement strengthens a co-op.”
He adds: “Being transparent is an opportunity for co-ops to demonstrate that there is nothing to hide and that the co-op is working in the best interests of the member.”
James says that the whole topic of sharing information is one best approached with legal counsel and with a board possessing very clear policies about the levels of information that can be issued and by whom. Ultimately, it is the responsibility of the CEO to enforce and oversee the policies.
When Activists Demand Information
SECO and Seminole adhere to federal reporting standards and state “sunshine” laws in areas of its operation and governance that pertain to public access to information, but he adds that the co-ops also have rights and responsibilities in providing information.
Recalling his experiences in the 1970s and 1980s when he had to deal with aggressive environmental activists in the Ohio River Valley and in Indiana, James said it is to a co-op’s advantage to know why and for what purposes a member is asking for information.
“In today’s litigious society, co-ops do need to monitor activists and restive consumer groups and especially if these groups start demanding information. Co-ops should be proactive and develop
a plan and process if they do not have one in place presently. It goes without saying that the co-op’s attorney needs to be involved also.”
James has worked in situations where co-ops ask members to sign a document affirming that the information they seek will be used for specific reasons only. Some co-ops release information to members in “good standing.” And never, James said, should a co-op share confidential information.
Proper Sharing Policies Equals Fairness and Truth
Control of such information, James argues, is not a back-door way of blocking it or subverting the intention of transparency; but, a way to ensure that the information is correct, truthful, and contextual to the specific request.
For members seeking election to the board, the sharing of information is necessary, if not imperative.
James said that at SECO candidates receive very detailed packets of information that help inform their candidacy, plus, they are encouraged to contact specific persons at the co-op with other questions. Those persons or subject matter experts are trained in the co-op’s information and transparency policies.
James said that such a process not only promotes a more democratic election process, but also winnows candidates down to only those who are most serious. Candidate packets laden with information provide a glimpse into the very real demands of board service and tend to “chase away” the merely curious or gadfly candidates.
Another area of caution, James said, pertains to meetings, especially when sunshine laws effectively open most board interaction to public scrutiny in the promotion of transparency.
Mired in Transparency?
Thus, it is possible for a board to be so transparent that real and effective decision-making – primarily at the meeting level – can get bogged down and even muzzle meeting dynamics by making directors more circumspect in necessary, open give-and-take discussions.
In such situations, James said, committees take over the deliberative process and as a result, the full board’s work appears as a consent agenda, thus making it seem less than transparent to someone outside the co-op.
A similar outcome looms for boards that have abandoned the committee structure, James has seen. Meetings can become driven by an agenda dominated by staff and contractor reports. The technical subject matter can become lengthy and complex — especially at the G&T level where operational and capital issues decisions have implications that can extend for decades.
Members’ Interest Ebbs and Flows
James said that he has seen members’ interest in information ebb and flow over the decades. “Demographics drive your business and that can result in fads. At present, solar is a hot topic and members are relying on us for reliable information. They are being flooded with solar scams. Thankfully, members are viewing their local co-op as a trusted source for correct information.”
Throughout James’s career in electric power, he also taught advanced management techniques as an adjunct professor in several colleges. From that background, he believes a corporate policy that skews toward sharing more information tends be a better practice, especially for cooperatives, because the business model principles are rooted in democratic participation and informed memberships.
“Members trust us. We have no axe to grind except that they get the best service. To be that trusted advisor is something we earn. We have a lot to share.”
James: Long Career in Co-ops
William “Bill” James has served as a SECO board member since 2010 and sits on the board at Seminole Electric Cooperative. After graduating from Pearl River Community College, MS, he went on to Mississippi State University, graduating in 1958 with a bachelor’s degree in Electrical Engineering.
He worked 18 years Florida Power & Light and taught management techniques at Manatee Junior College. After locating to Miami for Florida Power & Light (FP&L), he taught at the University of Miami.
James left FP&L in 1976 for the co-ops when he moved to Henderson, KY to work at Big Rivers G&T. While in that role, he taught in Indiana at the University of Evansville.
He returned to Florida in 1980, to become Seminole’s first director of operations.
Three years later, he was back in Indiana as the first director of engineering and operations for Wabash Valley Power Association. In 1986, he left Wabash to become President and CEO of Northeastern REMC, IN, until retiring in 1998.
In 1999, James became the first President and CEO of the first energy cooperative in Massachusetts and in 2001 served as a consultant to the CEO and board of a large Texas electric cooperative.