Late last week, Southern Montana Electric Cooperative announced that its annual meeting would be closed to the public, just days before a judge ruled that thousands of co-op documents must be opened to the public.
John Prinkki, a member of Southern’s board of directors, confirmed that the annual meeting this Friday would not be open to members of the distribution cooperatives that make up Southern, the “umbrella co-op.”
Tim Gregori, CEO of Southern, said the majority of board members favor regional meetings as the best way to answer questions. If Southern’s board approves the idea, Gregori foresees a “very aggressive” schedule with meetings in Billings, Great Falls and Forsyth and Lewistown.
“After speaking with other member systems, they believe that it would be far better to use the regional meeting approach than simply opening the annual meeting because it would allow for wider participation and a better forum,” he said.
If necessary, regional meetings could be held more often in those areas where there is a higher level of interest, he said.
Before the 2009 annual meeting, members of the co-ops that make up Southern had requested an open meeting and more transparency. During an earlier interview, Gregori explained that the only members of Southern are the handful of board members who represent Southern’s five co-op members.
Prinkki said “it didn’t make sense” to open the meeting, noting that the annual meeting was expected to run 30 minutes and that most other agenda items dealt with confidential contractual matters.
Arleen Boyd of Fishtail, a member of the Beartooth Electric Cooperative who has long pressed Southern for more information, said the informational meetings are a step in the right direction, particularly regarding information dissemination and opportunities for discussion. She argues, however, that the meetings do not address the issue of transparency.
“Transparency is the timely access to information,” she said. “Transparency is achieved when members know what the current issues are and how business is being conducted — what decisions are made and by whom. This requires access to meetings, especially annual meetings, and timely access to financial and other information.”
Boyd is not alone in targeting Southern over transparency issues. District Court Judge E. Wayne Phillips of Lewistown ruled last week the cooperative must release three boxes of information that had long been withheld from the public.
Southern and the city of Great Falls filed an appeal.