|Presque Isle County residents Jean Veselenak and Karen Silvers braved a cold, windy rain in Onaway to warn fellow PIE&G Co-op members about a proposed coal plants, but police officers wouldn’t let them.|
On October 30, 2009, I was almost arrested. It happened like this:
“Tom, you will have to leave the property immediately or the prosecutor will issue a warrant for your arrest.”
By golly, that statement sure caught my attention, and, being a law abiding guy, I walked directly to my truck and left the property.
I had never been threatened with arrest before, and this was not sitting well at all. I was not carrying a sign, blocking traffic, or calling out for a stop to the insane spending of electric co-op member money on a flawed coal plant proposal.
Nope, I was just walking up to the front door of Onaway High School, where the Presque Isle Electric & Gas Co-Op annual meeting had just concluded in the cafeteria. You read that right: Yes, I was threatened with arrest for walking up to a public school building.
Presque Isle County Undersheriff Brewbaker seemed a bit annoyed. His three patrol cars and deputies were tied up all morning, to control “the protestors” who were apparently “threatening” the good name of PIE&G, a private company. All the undersheriff ended up doing was shooing a 50-year-old grandfather and two slightly more experienced grandmothers with one-page flyers off the property before the meeting started.
So his big chance for real action came after the meeting, when I walked back up to the school to find the bathroom and see if they had a wireless Internet connection. Apparently, the word had been spread across the land to ratchet up security at the annual meetings of Wolverine’s co-ops, starting with this one. Signs warned that cameras and recording devices would not be tolerated.
I knew I wasn’t welcome inside the meeting itself. PIE&G CEO Brian Burns had personally notified me in an e-mail that non-members would not be allowed in. But I was thinking that, since this was a public building, at the very least I could at stand out on the sidewalk talking to friends after the meeting as they left. But noooooooooo!
It was different this past summer, when some of my friends handed out flyers at the annual meeting of another Wolverine family member, Cherryland Electric Co-op. Tony Anderson, Cherryland’s director, nicely asked them to stop, and they did. It was on private property, and the co-op had rented a ball field to have their meeting. We had some other friends, off the property, out on US 31, holding a few signs of actual protest. And we were allowed to record and take pictures inside the meeting.
We did what we were told; we followed the rules. No threatening gestures by anyone.
The only thing that changed between Cherryland’s June meeting and PIE&G’s October meeting, then, must be the anxiety level-the “pucker factors,” as some call it-at Wolverine Power Supply Cooperative, which is trying to build a coal plant in Rogers City, and which is owned by Cherryland, PIE&G, and several other retail electric co-ops in Michigan.
The coal developers, who want to force their expensive electricity onto the PIE&G members, must be getting scared of Karas and the grandmothers, so they are pulling as many strings as possible to suppress other points of view. In Onaway, they made sure there was no recording of any type of the meeting, other than their own minutes. They would not let a dissenting non-member (that would be me) in, but they did admit other non-members who support the plant proposal. And, most importantly, they had the county sheriff on hand to protect members from those other points of view.
So this was clearly all about what I think, not about where I’m a member.
Controlling dissent is one thing rural electric co-ops are really good at. Meetings are closed, financials are closed, minutes are off limits, plans are kept confidential, and annual meetings are closely scripted affairs that cater only to ardent supporters who are not interested in tough questions or a closer look at what is actually going on with their money and our environment.
Yet these co-ops wear the cloak of democracy and bask in the glow of not-for-profit status as if they are badges of openness and innocence.
The co-ops can’t have it both ways. The U.S. Internal Revenue Service says so, and we will get some real rules, not the ones these guys came up with a few weeks ago, enforced in the very near future.
Tom Karas leads the Michigan Energy Alternatives Project and founded Co-opConversations.org. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.