WINCHESTER — A former director who served on the Rappahannock Electric Cooperative board from 2013 to 2017 says the board’s elections are undemocratic, with the board routinely voting itself back into power without regard for the popular vote of the cooperative’s member-owners.
“I was told that once you get on the board, the chance of you leaving is next to null,” former Region Four director John Levasseur said in a Wednesday interview. “It’s a very close-knit board. They’re entrenched.”
REC is one of the largest electric cooperatives in Virginia, providing electric service to 22 counties and 11 towns, with about 27,500 member-owners in Frederick and Clarke counties.
Levasseur, a Spotsylvania County resident and retired U.S. Army brigadier general, became a board member in 2013 when he was selected to fill a vacancy created by the death of his predecessor, who had served on the board for about 35 years.
But Levasseur was ousted at REC’s board elections in 2017, losing to newcomer Jesse R. “Randy” Thomas. Although Levasseur won the popular vote (902 to 621), Thomas won the election because he received 3,648 “member undesignated” votes, which are blank proxy ballots the board fills in, according to company materials and statements.
In REC elections, member-owners of the utility can mail in ballots indicating who they are voting for. Member-owners who pay their bills online have the option to cast their ballots online. Ballots that are mailed without a candidate’s name are assigned to the board to fill in. Some REC members say practices like offering prizes for mailed ballots are in essence a solicitation for blank proxy votes the board can use, under its own rules, to vote itself back into office.
Levasseur said the use of undesignated proxy ballots is the central method the REC board uses to stifle democratic participation and keep out directors who make the board and management uncomfortable.
Christopher Shipe, REC board chairman and Clarke County resident, said he finds this notion “offensive,” “cynical” and “patronizing,” as it suggests REC member-owners are not capable of reading the instructions on their ballot.
“It’s in big, bold letters,” Shipe said. “If you don’t check a box, the board will vote your proxy.”
During his four years as director, Levasseur said the board voted in closed meetings on which candidates would get the undesignated proxy ballots.
“The board always knew who the winner of the elections was going to be, even before the annual meeting,” Levasseur said, adding the board deliberately left him out of the voting process. “I was not ousted by a democratic form of election.”
Shipe said the board does not vote to allocate the undesignated proxy ballots before REC’s annual meeting “anymore.”
Levasseur’s statements came on the heels of REC’s annual meeting in Fredericksburg last week, when the board used undesignated, or “non-designated” proxy ballots, to vote three incumbent members back into their positions.
Region One representative and Frederick County resident Michael W. Lindsay, Region Six representative Linda Gray and Region Seven representative resident J. Mark Wood, respectively, defeated Mike Biniek, Andrea Miller and Jack Manzari, all of whom belong to the grassroots reform group Repower REC.
Each incumbent received more than 2,700 undesignated proxy votes from the board — representing nearly half of all votes cast in the election. Manzari, who won the popular vote, lost the election because he did not receive the undesignated votes, which were assigned to Wood, the incumbent.
Some cooperative members have complained about REC’s election practices, the lack of public meetings and an energy portfolio they say does not contain enough renewable output, among other issues.
Repower REC, which Levasseur said he supports, seeks to address these issues.
Levasseur said he’s “not bitter” and doesn’t want to give the impression that REC is poorly managed. “It’s a well-run company.”
But the board is “voting in their friends” with the mentality of “roll along to get along,” Levasseur said. He said he was ousted because he asked questions when management presented recommendations during board meetings, such as questioning a decision to decrease the number of board meetings from monthly to every two months while increasing the stipend that directors receive.
“Have they ever voted down any of the management’s recommendations? The answer is no, at least not in the four years I was there,” Levasseur said. “It’s a very passive board, in my opinion.”
Shipe said REC’s proxy process is “identical to the one that is used by many electric co-ops, credit unions, mutual insurance companies and other cooperatives, not to mention most publicly traded companies.” He also said that REC’s proxy ballot process has been reviewed and approved by the Virginia State Corporation Commission, and the board and REC management have worked to get more member-owners involved in voting.
“We worked very hard to stay very neutral,” Shipe said, noting that REC paid for all candidates to have a campaign video on its website and a write-up in its Cooperative Living Magazine, which each member-owner receives in the mail.
As for Levasseur’s ouster, Shipe said he “didn’t understand the co-op model” and wanted REC to operate “more like a private company.” He said Levasseur “did not understand the culture of the organization.”
“The board we have now is very dedicated, very professional,” Shipe said.