Voices From the Crowd: What I’ve Learned in Six Years as a WOEC Director

This article is a personal effort by me alone to truthfully clarify and inform you about what I think may not be understood or appreciated by many WOEC members.  No other member of the Board, staff or any employee is responsible for its content. The other Board members approved my request to write before I started it.  This courtesy was granted since I’m one of the Board whose term expires in August and there are innuendoes and rumors circulating that need to be cleared up.

Normally the Board of Directors depend on our General Manager, Marc Farmer, or a senior member of the staff responsible for a portion of the co-op’s activities to act as WOEC spokesperson for all information provided to the public in general and our membership in particular.  Why?  Because they are the professional, contracted and paid individuals employed to execute democratically decided and agreed upon plans, policies, rules, regulations and bylaws.

We, the Board, are the members’ representatives and the staff works for all of us.  We are a cooperative.  The fundamental precept is to cooperate.  In part that means that the Board recognizes that the professionals do their job best when we don’t duplicate their efforts.  We don’t work for you, they do.  We are your elected representatives; you don’t employ us.  We accept the challenge and, to the best of our collective abilities, act on your behalf.  We ask for information, examine the facts and make decisions based on the combined desires, opinions, needs and requirements – not of any one individual, faction, district or even our individual selves – but the entire 4,000 plus membership.

If you attend a monthly business meeting of the co-op (one other than the August Annual meeting), you will observe that even though the actions taken by the Board are most times a consequence of unanimous agreement, often they are arrived at only after pro and con discussion and deliberation.  Even when agreement is not unanimous, the results are uniformly represented and enforced – we are a group with no appreciation much less tolerance for dissension once an agenda item is decided.  As circumstances change and the business of the co-op is conducted over monthly, annual, triennial and other cycles, subjects are reviewed and the resulting actions taken may be continued if warranted or modified or reversed as circumstances and specifics of our current situation dictate a change.  Cooperation is the foundation to our existence, but consideration of member resources and how to sustain the efficient, reliable delivery of electric power at the lowest cost drives our decisions.  WOEC is a registered Not-For-Profit, membership owned entity.  The Board and employees never forget that we are spending other peoples’ money.

I think that the last topic is a fundamental reason why we, the Board, have for some time and seemingly continue to be at odds with a small but vocal number of our membership (largely in the Vernonia environs) that has published their intention to (my words here) ‘take over and fix’ WOEC even if it takes three years to do so by electing new Board members as the terms of the present incumbents expire.  When the same questions are asked or explanations are requested and then answers are provided, over and over and over and over – yes, at least four times – it seems to me that the questioners either are not listening or aren’t really looking for answers and information.  Instead it appears that the whole exercise is an effort to instigate and then perpetuate an argument.  This was especially true when the questioners resorted to name calling after about the third time that the answers were provided; as in characterizing the Board members as being either lazy, stupid or dishonest as documented in a letter to the Oregon Attorney General requesting that WOEC be investigated for possible, “… either malfeasance or malpractice.”  I think you will agree that this sort of provocation is not a constructive way of cooperatively identifying and fixing problems.  The answers to many questions may not please anyone but never the less are true when they are factual.  What purpose does an argument serve other than to distract efforts from solving all of the problems at hand?

Paying your bill doesn’t only pay for the power you consumed in the last billing interval.  It pays for the operation, maintenance, repairs, necessary improvements and everything that entails.  That includes the loans that provided the funding for those expenses up to and including thirty years ago.  Cooperatives for Rural Electrification are financed by credit, not by taking funds out of a savings account – we don’t have one.  This way those members who belong to and use the facilities today are paying for the service, not only those who were members when the work was done.  But, the federal financial system that provides the low interest rate loans that make this possible have very strict requirements not only to qualify for and establish the loans, but also to prevent defaulting on repayment.  Parameters that measure and report everything from minutes of outages per member per month to the defaults on WOEC’s accounts (numbers and dollars) by past members who vanish without settling their outstanding bills are monitored as indications of our solvency and trustworthiness.  Too many negatively trending parameters and management control by local Board and hired staff is removed.  Then the federal experts take over with their primary goal of preventing losses.  If that occurs, membership rates and satisfaction become a secondary, at best, consideration.  My reason for including this is to remind you that it isn’t only the decisions made in the last few years that drive the Cost of Service.  Significant contributions that make up your bill are the result of what was and wasn’t initiated or done a generation or more ago.

So, with more expressions of unsatisfied members than those stopping to thank me on the street and the continuing anxiety of all the excruciating details that constitute the responsibility of a Board member that I’ve found out about in the past six years – why have I accepted nomination for a third term?  That is also something I started six years ago and continue to learn about – the people who I work with and those that work for all of us.  It seems that we all notice their service during outages that are fortunately fewer this year.  What I get to experience and grow constantly in appreciation of is how such a small number of people do a phenomenal job.

The Operations, Engineering, Financial and Front Counter employees are my heroes.  I’ve paid attention and noted that membership appreciation is highest when we’ve experienced calamities and ebbs when the power is most reliable.  What I have seen is a team who put membership needs ahead of private concerns during emergencies.  During normal days they’re collaborating in the field, on the phones and in meetings to promote important lessons and striving to find, correct and benefit from any past mistakes.  Safety, efficiency, avoiding waste and protecting membership investment – all the time with a limited, fixed budget – I cannot understand why they have not been recognized as Vernonia’s Citizens of the year.

Management Staff get little credit.  Four dedicated and extremely professional individuals who with twenty employees serve all our needs with diligent leadership, patient and exacting research of requirements and all possible solutions, and never shirk fulfilling the complex requirements to satisfy the federal, state and local industry demands for ever increasing information and reports.  Sustainability isn’t just a motto on the wall.  It is the result of Marc Farmer, Steve Scott, David Western and Sarah Rossi attending to the details now and for the welfare of our future membership long after we are all replaced.

The other six members of our Board of Directors provide a range of individual, professional and life experience and a true practical appreciation for the concerns, preferences and financial constraints of all members.  Sharing insights and observations throughout the month electronically between regular meetings, serving on committees as the needs arise for budget, labor and building issues; always diligently collaborating with the goal being the most effective return when your money is spent.

Last of all, please do ask questions, attend our meetings, study issues and most importantly vote.  Don’t wait for anyone to tell you who to vote for or why to not vote for someone.  Make your own decision based on whatever criteria you have for yourself.  I know some members are still unhappy about the new co-op buildings and the extra $3.00 that is a result in your monthly bills.  Not all Board members were in favor of moving and building new after the 2007 flood.  We studied and examined all the possibilities but initially agreed to only clean up and rebuild the old until two things happened.  First we were ordered to move and build new at the risk of not getting FEMA assistance in the future when flooding occurred again; we could have taken a gamble and at least waited until the economy improved.  But second, a minority of members who voted overwhelmingly did so in favor to move and build new when the Board asked for specific choices by the survey we sent every member.  We ask, listen, learn and act based on membership expressed desires and input in every case when it isn’t destructive.  For the system to work, you need to do your part.  Voting and accepting the consequences is your job.

 

Bob Paleck is a Representative of the West Oregon Electric Cooperative (WOEC) Board of Directors for District 5 (Timber – Buxton – W. Vernonia) and has been nominated for re-election in August.