A bill to allow member-owners of rural electric cooperatives to meet quorum requirements with mail-in and proxy ballots passed through a state legislative committee Jan. 31, with the support of 10 of its 12 members.
House Bill 300 would give the option to each of the state’s 11 cooperatives to allow proxy and mail-in ballots to count toward the total number of people needed to make a quorum for the sole purpose of voting on an issue or question.
Without a quorum at an annual meeting, members cannot vote on any ballot initiatives to change the bylaws.
“All questions shall be decided by a vote of a majority of the members voting thereon in person, a quorum being then and there actually present in person,” the Jemez Co-op bylaws states.
Jemez Co-op District 6 Member-Owner Dave Neal said at the Committee hearing they cannot change the Co-op’s bylaws because of their inability to get a quorum.
“It is very difficult because that then plays into this whole issue of how do you get more participation from the voters,” he said.
The bill was introduced by District 49 Rep. Gail Armstrong, R- Catron, Socorro and Valencia counties and heard in the Energy, Environment and Natural Resources Committee.
Socorro Electric Cooperative General Manager Joseph Herrera, who is originally from Rio Arriba County and is a former Jemez Mountains Electric Cooperative member-owner, said the bill will help give every rural electric cooperative member a voice. He was one of Armstrong’s expert witnesses during the Committee hearing.
“Don’t fear your membership and allow their voices to be heard through the true democratic process and give them a voice,” Herrera said. “That’s all this is about. Their voice should be heard on every ballot measure.”
New Mexico Rural Electric Cooperative Association Chief Executive Officer Keven Groenwold was Armstrong’s other expert witness. He said the number of members needed to make a quorum depends on the size of the cooperative. The number ranges from about 30 or 40 members to over 1,000 for larger cooperatives like Jemez Co-op.
Armstrong it can be difficult for people to make it to an annual meeting of the members to vote on a ballot issue or question. Socorro Electric’s service area is about 11,000 square miles.
Tri-State Generation & Transmission Association Senior Government Relation Advisor Rhonda Mitchell attended the Committee hearing and said the company supports the bill.
“On behalf of Socorro Co-op, one of our member-owners, we stand in strong support of this bill,” she said. “We think it is a good voting bill.”
All but one cooperative in New Mexico has a contract with Tri-State and purchases power from the company.
Jemez Co-op General Manager Donna Montoya-Trujillo said the Co-op neither supports or opposes the bill.
“Jemez Electric is the largest co-op in New Mexico and while we stand neither for or against the bill, we are concerned because we weren’t, sort of, brought to the table to have a discussion regarding the bill and would just liked to have had the opportunity to discuss it and go through some of the ideas,” she said. “We do try very hard and diligently to get a quorum at our annual meetings. We do think it’s really critical for our members to be present, to have discussions and actually understand how any change to the bylaws are going to effect them.”
The bill is permissive and the membership of each cooperative can decide if they want to adopt the change included in the bill. Cooperative member-owners will have to get an in-person quorum of their membership to vote on whether or not they want to allow mail-in and proxy votes to count toward the number needed for a quorum.
Spring Electric Cooperative Chief Executive Officer David Spradlin said they only need about 80 members to make a quorum and get one every year at their annual meeting. He supports the bill because he understands it is difficult for the larger cooperatives in the state to get one.
“I support my other co-ops who do have this problem and if this is what they want to have happen, and if it works for them since it is permissible, I don’t have to do it if my co-op doesn’t need it,” he said. “It allows them to do it if their co-op needs it so there is no reason not to support it.”
Armstrong said she ran the bill in 2017 and the House unanimously voted for its passage. The bill was tabled by the Senate Rules Committee
At the time, Jemez Co-op supported its passage, Armstrong said.
According to the Jemez Co-op bylaws, a quorum is 5 percent of its total membership. About 420 people attended the 2018 annual meeting, less than 40 percent of the number needed to make a quorum.
The Jemez Co-op has not had a quorum since the early 1980s.
During the Jan. 25 Board of Trustees meeting, President Nick Naranjo said the only reason they had a quorum was because they gave away a car.
Kit Carson Electric Cooperative General Manager Luis Reyes said he did not support the passage of the bill.
He said while he embraces anything that encourages member-owner participation, it is important to engage those members in-person.
“The members are owners of the co-op,” he said. “They have to make the effort to attend their meeting and to make sure that they participate and put their voice out in a way they want.”
Kit Carson has gotten a quorum at their annual meeting in 19 of the last 27 years, he said.
Reyes, as well as Committee Chairman District 50 Rep. Matthew McQueen, D-Bernalillo, Santa Fe, Torrence and Valencia counties, said they were concerned about proxy voting.
“I don’t have a problem with mail-in ballots,” McQueen said. “You are voting up or down or whatever the question is. I would caution you tread cautiously when you are entering into the area of proxies.”
Herrera said Socorro Electric Cooperative allows for proxy voting and has yet to have any issues with the process.
“This is the thing,” Herrera said. “A lot of co-ops are putting in as fear, its because they fear their membership. You have to go through it and experience it to say you actually had tampering or abuse of it. ‘Til you cross that bridge you can’t really say that’s going to happen.”
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