WINCHESTER — Three Rappahannock Electric Cooperative board seats up for re-election this summer are being contested by members of the utility co-op upset by what they say are questionable practices by the current board.
REC is one of the largest electric co-ops in Virginia, providing electric service to 22 counties and 11 towns and serving about 27,500 members in Frederick and Clarke counties. REC customers are member-owners of the co-op.
The co-op is governed by a nine-member board covering nine regions in REC’s service area. At the annual meeting on Aug. 22, members will choose board members for three-year terms in regions one, six and seven.
Region One covers Frederick and Shenandoah counties and parts of Page, Warren and Rappahannock counties. It is currently represented by REC board vice chairman and Frederick County resident Michael W. Lindsay, who has been on the board since 2010.
Lindsay is being challenged by Rappahannock County farmer Mike Biniek, who runs a Montessori school and summer camp on his property.
Caroline County resident and political campaign operative Andrea Miller is running to replace Region Six representative and Caroline County resident Linda Gray. Louisa County resident and retired physician Jack Manzari is running to replace Region Seven representative and Louisa County resident J. Mark Wood.
All board seats are technically at-large, so all REC members are able to vote once in each region regardless of their home address.
Region Two, which covers the counties of Clarke, Fauquier, Stafford and parts of Warren and Rappahannock counties, is represented by board chairman and Clarke County resident Christopher Shipe. That seat is not up for election this year.
Seth Heald, a 65-year-old REC member from Culpeper County, is a founder of Repower REC, a group made up of dissatisfied REC members formed in response to a 45-year purchasing agreement they say locks the co-op into higher-than-necessary electricity rates. He introduced the three candidates to the media during a conference call on Tuesday.
Biniek, Manzari and Miller said they want to re-evaluate and possibly re-negotiate the purchasing contract. They also want to review board member pay, pursue more renewable energy in the co-op’s portfolio and open all board meetings to the public.
Heald and Miller said the current board members have entrenched themselves using unfair elections practices, which they say includes using blank ballots to re-elect themselves.
REC members will receive ballots in their July copies of Cooperative Magazine, which they receive for free.
The board routinely offers prizes, like a $500 bill credit, for mailing in a ballot, Heald said. The ballot doesn’t have to be filled out for a member to be entered for the prize, according to Miller, so many ballots are returned blank. Under co-op rules, the board is able to cast a proxy vote for that member, Biniek said.
“Most people return their votes unmarked,” Biniek said. “[The board] then votes themselves back in.”
Biniek, Manzari and Miller said they want to end this practice.
Heald said Repower REC has been reaching out to members to let them know they can also vote at the annual meeting in August or online if they have accounts set up to pay their bills online. The location of the annual meeting should be announced in the July issue of Cooperative Magazine, he said.
Biniek, Manzari and Miller also said they believe board members, some of whom have served on the board for decades, have a financial interest in hanging onto their their positions as a source of income.
Board members are paid $2,000 a month for their part-time positions, and they receive a $500 per diem for attending meetings and for other days spent on co-op-related business. Heald said IRS returns have shown that some board members make more than $40,000 a year for their positions on the board.
Biniek, Manzari and Miller said they want the co-op’s pay practices for board members reviewed and possibly changed. Miller and Manzari said they would donate their salaries.
All three also said they would pursue funding to make video recordings of board meetings and post them online, in addition to opening up board meetings to the public. Currently, board meetings are not public. REC officials have said that opening up meetings would make it difficult for the board to efficiently run the co-op.
“We are member-owners,” Miller said of the co-op, emphasizing the last word. “We want to know.”
REC spokesman Matt Faulconer did not respond to a call seeking comment on Tuesday.
Heald said it’s unusual for all seats up for election on the REC board to be contested. His efforts to change the board’s membership started when REC adopted a 45-year purchasing agreement in 2009.
In November, the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA), a nonprofit research firm based in Cleveland, released a study that says because of a long-term contract, REC members have been paying 1.5 to 2.5 cents per kilowatt hour above the wholesale market rate for electricity. That means REC members paid about 6.3 cents per kilowatt hour when the market rate was about 5 cents, according to IEEFA.
The contract stipulates REC will buy 95 percent of its wholesale power from Old Dominion Electric Cooperative through 2054.
Faulconer and REC leadership have said the report misses the point of the contract, which regulates prices over time and insulates members from price spikes during periods of peak energy demand.
Heald said membership was not made aware of the contract before it was adopted. “No one reading Cooperative Magazine in the last ten years would know anything about it.”
Repower REC, which operates the website repowerrec.com, is partnered with Solar United Neighbors of Virginia, a nonprofit that advocates for solar-powered homes.