Community

Force Seven Moderate Gale- Whole Trees in Motion

This installment describes the strengths and weaknesses of each group in the Lincoln Electric member uprising, as I saw them at the time it became apparent that the Lincoln Electric board and management was unwilling to back down.  It is important to stress that while InterBel’s trustees were different from Lincoln Electric’s, management at the time was virtually indistinguishable – over the past generation, the two cooperatives have separated further and further.  Probably the biggest indicator came from the InterBel board (Mountain Ear, 10/10/1988).

“InterBel’s meeting last Monday showed that they aren’t trying the same methods of crowd gathering as Lincoln Electric’s board of trustees uses.  Although there were almost as many angry members present as started the vigilantes down in Virginia City, the InterBel board didn’t start any fights.

Instead the InterBel trustees chose to use suspense and secrecy to keep members interest up over just what’s happening.  Kind of like ‘Let’s Make a Deal’, only Vanna White doesn’t show what’s behind door number 3, and the individual cooperative member doesn’t get to watch the deal made – the member just gets to pay for it.  Unfortunately, none of the members will walk off the stage with the goodies.

It didn’t have to be that way.  Trustee Mike Workman moved to adopt the same policies that the State of Montana accepts for holding executive sessions.  It wasn’t to be.

Workman’s motion for open meetings died, with no other trustee willing to second that motion.  InterBel trustees preferred secrecy.  InterBel’s lawyer didn’t point out that they were conducting business contrary to Robert’s Rules of Order.

Chapter Two

Another secret meeting was held last Friday night.  The Lincoln Electric Board chairman Charlie Cope met us before we got to the sidewalk, as other trustees dashed behind closed curtains.  Charlie explained that this was a closed meeting so the two boards could discuss all the phone calls they’ve been receiving.  He didn’t explain the phone calls, but I assumed they were about the manager’s 2 year, 100 G’s, golden parachute.

Charlie explained, “You people just don’t understand.”  He’s right.  I don’t understand.  What are they hiding?  If the trustees are willing to admit they’ve made mistakes, why must they correct them in secret meetings.  How many more skeletons are waiting to be uncovered?

In the spirit of openness, I’ll tell Charlie why we keep ‘picking on’ the electric co-op.

First of all, there’s every indication that the members have been and are being taken to the cleaners.  Second it looks like the board hasn’t done doodly squat to look out for the members.  Obviously, the trustees aren’t proud of themselves.  They passed the golden parachute in a secret meeting a year ago – yet we didn’t hear about it until this August.  Even then, it was leaked to us, not released to the public.  Beyond that, it’s beginning to look like Monk’s 100 G’s is the tip of the iceberg when it comes to trustees helping shaft members.

What else have you guys done, that you can’t meet in the open?

Chapter 3

According to our information, the LEC board is keeping the results of the Friday secret meeting secret – at least until their regular meeting on October 17, when they will allegedly satisfy everyone.

Let’s all go there – it should be a heck of a performance.”

From here, I write from memory – the loose organization of LEC members who would become known as CREAM (Concerned REA Members) weren’t keeping a lot of records of their meetings, so there may be some omissions or blunders in my details – but I’ll get them as correct as I can.  CREAM looked at the members uprising tactically, assessing our strengths and weaknesses in the upcoming conflict with the LEC board and management.

We had what the board termed a “snitch” among the LEC employees and two board members providing us information.  Craig heard from his father – but Duke Baney attended each CREAM meeting and reported what was going on.  I won’t be naming the ‘snitch’ – a promise is a promise.  The conclusion here is that despite LEC’s executive sessions and secret meetings, CREAM had better intelligence (in the espionage use of the word).

Both Kenny Gwynn and Al Luciano had previously attempted to change the board’s membership and conduct in the annual meetings.  They brought invaluable information of attempts that had failed in the past.  The consensus was that the only option for success was to call for a special, single purpose meeting as permitted by the cooperative’s bylaws.  LEC’s management had never failed in an annual meeting – in this situation, Al and Kenny had learned from the experience of failing, while LEC management had not learned from success. 

Lincoln Electric had lots of cash and made large advertising purchases in the Tobacco Valley News . . . I’m fairly certain that the non-profit electric cooperative was the largest single advertiser.  On our side, we had the Mountain Ear – a desk-top advertiser printed on a photocopier that had never exceeded 300 copies per week.  On the other hand, the conflict and the story was boosting readership, and more photocopier time resulted in more copies.  In retrospect, the special meeting and the Ear were essential.  Both were new, and LEC management didn’t come up with effective strategies to negate them.  We planned a larger member turnout than had ever happened before.

The petition for a special meeting required member signatures – and because CREAM was collecting the signatures, we had a better idea of how large the opposition to Lincoln Electric’s management was.  We had donation jars out, where supporters could throw in change to support CREAM – when people sign petitions and contribute funds, it gives an idea about how large the support is. 

Finally, LEC’s management had been in power long enough to build up a lot of member animosity, one at a time . . . and those feelings accumulated rather than dissipated.

It was time – I recall looking at our assets and tactics, pencil-whipping the numbers, and calculating that a special meeting would vote out the old board by a 52 – 48 margin if we could get a turnout of 400.  The events in the next installment demonstrate that my calculations were a bit conservative.

I recall my comment at an LEC board meeting: “This is our last chance – if we leave without coming to an agreement, we won’t be playing the game, the game will be playing us.”  The reply from one of the trustees was “Are you threatening us?”  When we left the meeting, the game was playing all of us.

Next Installment: Force 8: Fresh Gale – Twigs break off trees, generally impedes progress  CREAM’s petition and first advertising page.

Community

Light Breeze . . . Vane sets to wind, sock begins to fill

I’ve been asked several times to put the story of the 1988 member uprising that replaced the Lincoln Electric Board on paper.  I suppose it should be written down – few electric cooperatives have had successful member uprisings, and, of the most active members of CREAM (Concerned REA Members), only Craig Eaton and I are still around to tell the tale.  Kenny Gwynn, Al Luciano, Duke Baney have long since passed on, but this is their story just as well.

And I am not going to identify the inside source.  Promised to keep the secret over 30 years ago, and the promise is still good.  Not going to tell you if our source – the other side used the word snitch – is male or female, alive or dead. 

I wasn’t involved at the beginning.  We started watching the board meetings in June or July, when Craig had commented on nepotism in LEC hiring.  The June 27, 1988 issue of the Mountain Ear headlines “Lincoln Electric Has New Nepotism Policy.”  “The new policy prohibits hiring of relatives (of management and supervisory employees) of the third degree and closer.”  July 25 included, “The board discussed proposed policy #700.  Policy #700 will require the public to be on the agenda before being heard.  The policy seems to be in response to Craig Eaton’s appearance before the board last May.”  September 5 headlined “REA Manager to Retire” and described how the manager would stay in Eureka for two years after retirement, as a consultant, with no managerial responsibilities or duties, receiving his regular salary as fixed in June 11, 1989.

In retrospect, it’s obvious things were heating up, and we were reporting them.  In the September 19 issue, I commented that I had 3 months off because of a broken back.  On September 26th we wrote:

“We’ve been attending Lincoln Electric co-op meetings for about 3 months now–since Craig Eaton told of nepotism in REA hiring. 
By and large, we hadn’t seen a need to cover these meetings before.  I turn the switch, and my lights, computer, whatever go on.  Trego has better electric service than anywhere else I’ve lived or worked–and considering the places I’ve packed a computer into as a consultant, that says a lot.
Unfortunately, several of the trustees, along with Craig Eaton, have brought us to the realization that you can’t judge every aspect of your electric co-op by pulling a light switch in the morning.
There’s a story to be told, and some accusations to be investigated.  We’ll be running a series of articles on the REA covering the accusations and making our own conclusions.  The Mountain Ear is too small a publication to cover all this in a single issue, and advertising is the tail that wags the dog–we can’t afford the single issue approach.
Besides, with this much controversy, we’ll get even better readership during the next couple of months.