It's hard to know what's going on with Carroll Electric Cooperative, but they are really hunkering down these days. It has been sued by a couple of members representing a class of members concerned about the Co-op's use of herbicides and pesticides on or near rural farmland, and about the lack of transparency in Co-op governance. Carroll Electric has responded to the lawsuit by changing its bylaws in several material ways, and proposing that board members be tested for drug use prior to meetings.
I haven't heard that CEC board members use illegal drugs, but this is the 21st Century and anything is possible I guess. Maybe we should congratulate CEC for its proactive stance on drug use and assuring that board members are not impaired in anyway. It would certainly be embarrassing if, say, my old friend Joe Don Fuzzwick became a board member and then proved to be a methamphetamine addict and not the decent Christian Family Man we've all been led to believe him to be. I say test them puppies, and often.
What I have heard are complaints that the Co-op's board is comprised of trustworthy family retainers who can be relied on to do what management tells them. In other words, Hear No Evil, See No Evil, and Evil show up at meetings, collect some dough, and nod up and down when the Puppet Master pulls a string. CEC's bylaw changes include adding a "nominating official" to review applications for board membership. Whether this change bodes well for my pal Joe Don Fuzzwick's chances, or simply reinforces the alleged family retainer culture, remains to be seen. At least we may find out--at last!--if Joe Don can pass a drug test.
Frankly--and minus the drug test--CEC's method of choosing board members is about how most corporate boards are constructed and operate. It is hardly shocking that pals want to hang out with like-minded pals. And that may be the crux of the problem: Carroll Electric Cooperative is operationally and philosophically now an energy corporation and not really the little hometown co-op we sort of imagine it to be. It is, we know, hard to fly like a corporate eagle when you're surrounded by cooperative turkeys.
Cooperatives differ from corporations in that they are businesses formed by a group of people for the benefit of individuals within the group. Another definition of a co-op is a business owned and operated by the people who run it and work in it. In all cases, co-ops are supposed to share cooperative values such as self-help, self-responsibility, democracy and equality, and equity and solidarity. Co-ops also have, as expected by their special tax status, the following cooperative operating principles:
*Voluntary and Open Membership
*Democratic Member Control
*Member Economic Participation
*Autonomy and Independence
*Education, Training and Information
*Cooperation among Cooperatives
*Concern for Community
Cooperatives are, according to my Boy's Book of Knowledge, dedicated to the values of openness, social responsibility and caring for others. They are distinguished from other forms of incorporation in that profit-making or economic stability are balanced by the interests of the community. My BBK missed the parts about drug testing members, or designating nominating officials, but it is not, admittedly, a comprehensive resource.
Let me say that I have no animus toward Carroll Electric. I like the people I know who work there and I'm sure they ascribe at least in theory to the cooperative values and principles listed above. Right now some CEC employee is ringing a bell for the Salvation Army outside the Evil Retail Giant's big grey door. It is cold outside and he is doing a work of mercy. Good for him and good for Carroll Electric for supporting one of our best local causes.
CEC may also be open to conversations about how it uses pesticides and herbicides. A friend who farms outside of Green Forest challenged a couple of Co-op employees who were fixing to spray along the fence line of my friend's organic vegetable farm. These employees stopped, got permission from a higher-up (maybe he was a nominating official) not to spray and my friend's organic production was saved from whatever poison CEC was using that day.
My Green Forest farmer friend also reports that employees from Carroll Electric say the Co-op is spending lots of money researching and studying the efficacy of various non-chemical, organic pesticides and herbicides that land owners may be able to request instead of the chemical jazz they're spraying today. You have to wonder why CEC isn't publicizing these examples of good Cooperative citizenship instead of the paranoid legalisms we're seeing in their press releases.
One good reason for Carroll Electric to expand its use of organic pesticides and herbicides is that organic food production is a fast growing and lucrative opportunity for rural areas that aren't suitable for large scale row crop production. Once upon a time Carroll County was famous for producing and processing tomatoes, and for its many fine orchards; times changed--specifically transportation systems and farm expansion toward the west--and they have changed again: the Ozarks can be a player in the burgeoning organic foods supply and value chains if organic production methods are allowed to meet demand.
Securing those markets--in Springfield, Fayetteville, the Rogers-Benton corridor, Kansas City, Tulsa, and locally and beyond--depends on the integrity of our land and the quality of its necessarily cooperative stewardship. Money and jobs--and not the fairy tale jobs promised by corporate tax cutters and deregulators--will follow if farmers, utility providers, politicians and consumers, can agree that our best future depends on having a genuinely diversified food production and processing capability. In Carroll County diversification means grass raised beef and free range and pasture raised poultry along with organic and natural fruits, nuts, and vegetables.
I advise Carroll Electric to lighten up. It has plenty of like-minded, not to say single-minded, board members already. The worst thing that would happen if my friend Joe Don Fuzzwick got elected to the CEC board--assuming he can pass the drug test--is that a minority opinion might be heard now and then. That's called democracy--and the cooperative way.