It was April 30, 1936, when 10 men gathered to build the foundation and write the rules that would govern the Wisconsin Electric Cooperative Association, with the goal of electrifying rural Wisconsin and ensuring safe, reliable, and affordable power, way back then and into the future. They had no way of knowing what was to come more than 80 years later.
Even one year ago it was hard to imagine that “the way we’ve always done things” would no longer be an option. The traditional gatherings of cooperative communities—for annual meetings or member appreciation events—would no longer be allowed due to pandemic-related health and safety risks.
The foresight of those who organized the statewide 85 years ago is quite remarkable. The framework has served us very well over the decades. The Cooperative Principles the statewide was built on are the same that we still adhere to today.
Principle number two, Democratic Member Control, is, I believe, the principle that allows us to stand out from all other types of electric utilities in our state and nation. Under this principle, co-ops operate as democratic organizations controlled by members who actively participate in setting policies and making decisions. The elected representatives are accountable to the membership. Coupled with the fact our electric cooperatives are not-for-profit utilities, this allows co-ops to focus on the goal of providing safe, reliable, and affordable electricity to members.
The coronavirus pandemic, though, put a time-honored tradition, required by state statute (Chapter 185), at odds with public health guidelines. Governor Tony Evers issued Executive Order #72 on March 12, 2020, the first of four public health emergencies in Wisconsin, designating the Department of Health (DHS) as the lead agency. DHS followed up with guidance to refrain from large gatherings and practice social distancing, just as many of our electric cooperatives were set to host their annual meetings, as they have done for so many decades.
The in-person gatherings are not only tradition—they are required by statute, which says the annual meeting must be “held at the principal office or such other place as the board may determine.” That made perfect sense in 1936 when the statewide was established, but it complicates our situation today. I have attended most of our members’ annual meetings; attendance ranges from 200 members to more than a thousand. Last year that was not possible.
In 2020, almost all scheduled annual meetings were postponed or delayed. Some got creative and figured out ways to gather safely, such as “drive-in” style meetings where people stayed in their cars, listening to the meeting on the local radio station and voting by honking their horn or flashing their lights.
We recognize the need to adjust state law, not only as we ride out the end of this pandemic, but so we are prepared for any potential future events. The statewide organizers and lawmakers back in the 1930s could not have considered such things as Zoom or WebEx meetings, but they are realities we have to have as options today.
Just as we did several years ago when we were able to change the law to allow for electronic voting, we are again working to change the law, this time to clarify that virtual annual meetings are allowed. We are working with legislators and hoping the governor will sign our bill to ensure we are fulfilling the requirements that allow for our democratic member control.
We look forward to the day when COVID-19 is a distant memory and we can all gather together like we always have, but we also must be prepared for the times when we cannot. Just in case.