Several months ago it became clear that the right of members to speak before the Board of Directors was a protection absent in the Bylaws or Member Bill of Rights under the Articles. Reform framers of the Member Bill of Rights (including me) never imagined that the right to speak before a reformed PEC would be questioned. During the Fuelberg rein members were not permitted to speak or even attend board meetings–actions which contributed to a member revolt and lawsuit.
In hindsight a free speech omission in the Member Bill of Rights was a mistake. Last summer, the new board president attempted to silence (by executive fiat) a member, Ernest Altgelt. When Mr. Altgelt tried to speak before the Board, he was escorted by the police from the room with the consent of the presiding officer, Board President James Oakley. Mr. Oakley took the occasion to lecture Mr. Altgelt and the members present about his new rules. He declared that he had unilaterally changed the rules of decorum (which had been unanimously passed by the Board several years prior) and which had served it well ever since. Mr. Oakley suggested that member comments were somehow a “privilege” granted by the chairman, that they could be taken away at any time and that comments had to be “germane” to the topics of the day, etc. In essence, the board president was saying, if I don’t like what I hear I can cut off your microphone.
Out of this incident and ensuing brouhaha (and to its credit), the Board took action and on August 31, 2015, unanimously approved an amended Open Meetings Policy: Section 1, Paragraph 1 of the Open Meetings Requirement now reads as follows:
A Member has the right to attend every regular, special or called Meeting of the Board of Directors (Board) and Board Committees (Committees), except for Executive Sessions as allowed by this policy or by law. All meetings shall be called with proper notice, and any final action, decision, or vote on a matter shall be made in an Open Meeting.
A Member has the right to speak before the Board of Directors or any regular special or called meeting of the board and Committees on any PEC matter at a designated time in accordance with the Decorum Policy.
Recognizing that this action did not go far enough, at that same meeting on August 31, a vote was taken on resolution #3209 directing the General Counsel, Don Richards, to draft language amending the Member Bill of Rights in such a way that guarantees the right of members to speak and which cannot be taken away by future boards or chair. Boards will come and go. Policies can be changed or dropped depending on the whim of a board at any given time. Only the Member Bill of Rights can legally guarantee a right that cannot be taken away, except by a member vote.
There seems now to be some equivocation at play. Thus far, no draft of this language or discussion of it has been seen or heard by the Board. One wonders why. If members of the Board now believe that Pedernales Electric Cooperative members cannot be guaranteed a right to speak before the Board, it strikes me that they have missed the entire essence of the democratic reforms that distinguish PEC from almost every electric cooperative in the nation–open records, open meetings, fair elections. If they are struggling to find precedent for democracy in action within the cooperative world, they need only look to their own cooperative. If such an amendment is to appear on the ballot in June, the Board and its General Counsel must quit dithering and approve the language–language which has already been ably crafted in the above Open Meetings requirement and which can be easily inserted into the Member Bill of Rights.
It is important that this happen. In the spirit of the other rights guaranteed to members, a free speech inclusion may well be the most important. The right of free speech is in fact, the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution for good reason. Without it there can be no true democratic governance.
There is important work to do at PEC and the Board and management need to get on with it–but it must not neglect the hard work of governing PEC as a democratic institution–a condition that was hard fought and won by the members. Nobody says democratic governance is easy but that is the essence of today’s PEC and the alternative is completely unacceptable.