Richard Knox: Your vote can assure NH Electric Co-op accountability

Richard Knox: Your vote can assure NH Electric Co-op accountability

WHEN the 70,000 members of the New Hampshire Electric Co-op get ballots for the company’s annual election this week, they’ll have an opportunity to weigh in on a proposed change in the company’s bylaws. It sounds boring and pro-forma, but in fact the proposal is critical to the functioning of the $185 million-a-year electric utility and broadband company.

The bylaws change would guarantee that NHEC directors have access to all the information they need to ensure that co-op members’ interests come first. It would give directors the tools to stay on top of dynamic developments in dynamic the electricity and internet-service businesses.

Some may wonder why such a guarantee is necessary. Isn’t it obvious that a company’s directors should be privy to all aspects of its finances, operations and management?

Well, surprisingly, there’s currently nothing in NHEC’s bylaws that assures directors have access to the company’s books and records. Over the past year, that internal freedom-of-information issue has become a sharply divisive matter. Board decisions over matters large and small are split 6-to-5, with the majority adamantly protecting management’s control of information.

Contention over this issue (and others) led the board last fall to hire a consultant for advice on how to work better together.

But the solution does not lie in a consultant’s report. It’s far more effective for members to speak up. Our group, N.H. Broadband Advocates, demonstrated that four years ago when we campaigned for a ballot initiative aimed at getting the co-op into the broadband business. Back then the board opposed our initiative, but to their credit most directors changed their mind after nearly two-thirds of voting members voted “YES” for broadband.

That decision is paying off for members in a big way. So far N.H. Broadband, the co-op’s broadband subsidiary, has built more than 1,000 miles of fiber making high-speed internet available to more than 10,000 NHEC members. The full network will have about 4,000 miles serving 60,000 members. These days all of the candidates for NHEC director say they support broadband.

On the electric side, NHEC’s next main challenge is to upgrade its transmission and distribution system to expand renewable power and customer-owned solar generation.

Both of these businesses require conscientious board oversight.

However, current board policy gives management the power to require directors to come to NHEC’s Plymouth headquarters to look at documents. Often directors can’t copy or download them, even though they all have company-secured laptops. So there’s no way for them to search thousands of pages or do meaningful analysis.

It’s as though Eversource could compel N.H. Public Utilities Commission members to travel to its Boston headquarters to view data on a proposed rate hike. No one would stand for that.

The board majority strongly opposes the “open access” ballot initiative, calling it “unnecessary” and warning against disclosure of confidential information. The bylaws proposal anticipates this by protecting certain categories of information. It also specifies that any restrictions on access be removed only if three or more board members request the information. Proponents also note that directors have a clear duty to keep sensitive information confidential.

In addition to the bylaws vote, it matters very much who gets elected to the NHEC board this cycle. Six of the nine current candidates did not respond when we asked their position on the bylaws initiative. They’ve been silent on the issue in their public statements, ads and letters to the editor. Their campaigns rely on a vague promise of “affordability and reliability.” There’s no reason to think they would alter the current complexion of the NHEC board.

On the other hand, the following three candidates are staunchly behind the “good governance” initiative. For that and other reasons, our group urges co-op members to cast their votes for:

Leo Dwyer, a board incumbent who is the father of the co-op’s broadband venture and was instrumental in securing $65 million in subsidies for its internet subsidiary.

Jeff Morrill, another incumbent, who has served as NHEC chair. He was the first chair of N.H. Broadband, and is committed to making the co-op work better.

Jerry Stringham, who represents Woodstock and Lincoln in the state legislature. He would bring high-level business experience and a fresh perspective to the co-op at a time of complex challenges.

Last year, only about 10% of co-op members participated in the annual election. Passing a bylaws initiative requires approval from 67% of voting members. These elections can hinge on a few dozen votes, so every vote matters.

So if you’re a co-op member, please take heed and vote!


Richard Knox is chairman of N.H. Broadband Advocates and lives in Center Sandwich.