Transparency Needed at Member-Owned Utilities

February 10, 2010

Georgia Watch Deputy Director Danny Orrock speaks out in today’s AJC for more transparency and accountability at Georgia’s EMCs. Check out the opinion piece here.

Originally published in the Atlanta Journal Constitution:

By Danny Orrock

This past fall, families and businesses voiced their opinion about a proposed rate increase from Georgia Power. Many wrote their Public Service Commissioners and attended public meetings, while a few even took the time to download filings by the utility. This public involvement was made possible by the laws and rules that require PSC meetings and documents to be open to the public.

With more than 2 million customers, Georgia Power is the largest single electricity provider here. But 4.5 million customers get power from the 42 Electric Membership Corporations (EMCs) in Georgia, whose rates are not regulated by the PSC.

Unlike an investor-owned utility, whose shareholders choose to purchase stock in the utility, an EMC is owned by its members. While Southern Co. shareholders have chosen to buy its stock, EMC members are captive investors simply because of where they live or locate their business. Members can participate in EMC matters by attending the annual meeting and electing the board that steers the organization. If the EMC operates in the black, it is expected to return excess revenue back to members.

EMC boards are distinct in that they do not have to open their meetings to the public. Though the law provides a way for members to access the books and records, there are several exceptions that EMCs can invoke to force a ratepayer to go to court in order to keep an eye on their electric utility.

Fundamental determinations like power rates and capital expenditures should not be made in the dark — if Georgia Power customers can participate, there’s no reason EMC customers shouldn’t have the same opportunity. Transparency benefits members and the utility. The situation at Cobb EMC would likely not be so contentious if members had been allowed to meaningfully engage with the board and management several years ago.

A few simple steps toward openness at EMCs would provide better opportunities for involvement of members:

● Make books, records and any documents related to the business of the EMC available for examination and reproduction by members. Copying costs should be reasonable.

● Require an EMC to respond to a member’s request for information promptly. If the information is not available immediately or not subject to inspection, then the EMC should provide a date when it will be ready or redact sensitive data and explain the specific reason why it will not be provided.

● Allow members access to an up-to-date membership list, a crucial resource when running for EMC board positions. Comprehensive information on elections should be included in bill inserts at least twice before board nominations.

● Members should be allowed to attend board meetings, and written records of meetings should be kept for three years. In instances where the board needs to discuss trade secret information or sensitive personnel matters, closed-door executive sessions should be allowed. But all final decisions should be conducted before members.

By and large, the EMCs in our state serve their members well. So, EMCs should not have a problem with ensuring that their members are able to be engaged. Georgia Power customers have the right to get involved with the bottom-line utility issues that affect them. It’s time to set the same standard for EMC members.