‘I will be heard’: OCREA members demand board transparency, accountability

Vanessa Dietz/Daily Mining Gazette Houghton County Sheriff’s Office Deputy Matthew Tchida stands guard outside the Ontonagon County Rural Electrification Association members meeting at the Chassell Township School, as members sign in Saturday morning.

CHASSELL — Members of the Ontonagon County Rural Electrification Association (OCREA) passed three resolutions at Saturday’s annual members meeting, but it is not clear if the board will adopt any of them.

Showing up in record numbers at the Chassell Township School, members passed resolutions to rescind changes the board allegedly made to the bylaws, redistrict areas served to insure equal representation on the board and increase transparency.

Manager Debbie Miles barred a Daily Mining Gazette reporter from the meeting after consulting with Board President Calvin Koski and Ken Bradstreet of the Michigan Electrical Cooperative Association, which represents the legislative and regulatory interests of electric cooperatives.

However, Bruce Johanson, an OCREA member from District 1 Green/Firesteel of Ontonagon, who is also a reporter for the Ontonagon Herald, provided his account of the meeting for Mining Gazette readers.

“There were 72 registered members present, a strong quorum,” Johanson wrote. “A request from the floor to amend the agenda was denied with the statement from Bradstreet: ‘The board determines the agenda.'”

“In short, members of this member-owned cooperative have no input on the agenda items or what business will be conducted,” Johanson wrote.

“From the floor, District 7 member Sarah Green presented a number of bylaws changes and member resolutions:

“Ms. Green contended that several board actions are in violation of the bylaws and prevent effective participation by members in their co-op,” Johanson wrote. “Members have not been notified if proposed changes to the by-laws before a board meeting at which a vote is taken.

“Resolution No. 1 regarding bylaws was approved by the members present and voting, 52 in favor, 11 opposed.

“The next issue was redistricting,” Johanson wrote. “The rationale is that members are not adequately represented because of uneven districts. For example, District 7 (Boston Location and Lake Linden) has 1,400 members. District 2 (Lake Mine/Toivola) has 400 members, but each district has one director.

“Member Mel Haskell of District 1 Green/Firesteel in Ontonagon spoke in favor of this resolution, charging that the board has been derelict in not addressing a fair distribution for a number of years,” Johanson wrote. While Johanson said President Calvin Koski explained that the OCREA is organized along geographic lines, not by member apportionment, the bylaws call for equal representation.

“Resolution No. 2, redistricting, was approved 56 in favor, 14 opposed,” Johanson wrote.

Last was a resolution calling for the board to act in an open and transparent manner in relations with members, including prompt and accurate communication of board meetings, agendas and actions.

Johanson said he addressed the issue at the meeting.

“The board only allows comments before their meetings, with a five-minute time limit, and I’ve been told that the board doesn’t have to answer any questions,” Johanson said. “In addition, only one member is allowed in the room to speak to the board at any one time. Board members conduct their meetings behind closed doors, and each board member receives $325 per meeting — the president receives $350 — and IRS Form 990 indicates board members are receiving other compensation in addition to their per diem ranging from $1,950 to $7,800 per year.”

Johanson also pointed out that when he questioned the practice of allowing only one member to address the board behind closed doors at a time, he was told, “That is our policy.”

He said he was promised a copy of board policies but never received it.

“It is time to take back our cooperative,” Johanson said he said the meeting. “There was spontaneous applause.”

Gerald Kitzman, a former Ontonagon County sheriff, spoke in favor of open meetings at REA meetings. He said he stands for members and news media to attend all OCREA meetings.

When the question was called, the resolution on transparency carried 58 in favor, 9 opposed.

“Clearly the members want to know what is going on at board meetings and want improved communications between the board and the members,” Johanson concluded.

Several members noted board members were among the few voting against the resolutions.

“Bradstreet now declared that the resolutions were ‘advisory only,’ and the board can still do as it wished with them,” Johanson wrote. “This raised an immediate storm of protest, but Board President Calvin Koski promised to review and consider the proposals at the next REA Board meeting.

Johanson quoted Haskell as saying, “You can’t have it both ways. Either you follow the bylaws, or you violate the bylaws, which is a contract with the members.”

“I am baffled by the comment from Ken Bradstreet that resolutions by the majority at an annual meeting have no force,” Green told the Daily Mining Gazette. “I’m not certain of our next steps. I guess first will be to see how the board acts at their next regular meeting.”

Johanson said others chimed in support of the resolutions.

“Member Pat Kitzman of the Ewen/Trout Creek District demanded the board respond to the members themselves. Bradstreet tried to silence Kitzman, who replied, ‘Call your cops if you will, but I will be heard.’ Kitzman demanded open meetings and access to information,” Johanson wrote.

Before the meeting, Kitzman told the Mining Gazette he thought the press should be allowed to attend the REA meetings. Houghton County Sheriff’s Office Deputy Matthew Tchida said he was on hand at the board’s request and not sure what to expect, since it was his first time there.