ROBERTS — In years past, a free lunch and a goody bag have enticed members to Beartooth Electric Cooperative’s annual meeting in September.

But this year, some members are more interested in the elections.

During the cooperative’s annual meeting Saturday in Roberts, members will vote to fill two expiring board positions.

At least two new candidates have expressed interest in serving. Newcomer Arleen Boyd of Fishtail is expected to challenge longtime incumbent Mike Plymale of Absarokee to represent the area from Roscoe to Fishtail, Dean and north of Absarokee.

Newcomer Roxie Melton is hoping to be elected to serve as trustee for District 2, which encompasses Joliet, Boyd and northwest to Shane Ridge. The district has been represented by Ronnie Wright Jr., who does not intend to run again.

More candidates may be nominated Saturday.

Barring the rare special meeting, Beartooth Electric Cooperative’s annual meeting offers the only opportunity for members to vote on trustees and other co-op matters. According to current bylaws, members must be present to vote. Proxy votes and mail ballots won’t be allowed. Voting is limited to members, meaning a spouse that is not included on the co-op’s membership list cannot vote.

That election process has caused consternation among some Beartooth members. A new bylaw committee, made up of trustees and co-op members, was discussing mail ballots when Beartooth’s board disbanded the committee last spring. Since then, two committee members have circulated a petition seeking to bring the vote-by-mail option to the co-op membership.

Meanwhile, change has come to Beartooth Electric Cooperative — it’s got a new website (www.beartoothelectric.com) and online billing — but some members say change isn’t coming fast enough. In an effort to promote change through the elective process, the Beartooth Vigilance Committee sponsored three public forums — a first for Beartooth co-op elections — to introduce potential board candidates.

During the Columbus forum earlier this week, Boyd stressed her support for transparency and the cooperative principles.

“I’m running for the board because I have a passion for the co-op principles,” she said. “And the most important are democracy and member participation and control.”

Boyd is an outspoken critic of Beartooth’s involvement in the Highwood project and has written numerous articles documenting why she does not think the project is financially viable. She has worked with major companies in oil and gas, process plant design and engineering.

“I have prepared and reviewed large, complex budgets and business plans,” she said. “The idea that some of us aren’t smart enough to understand the power industry doesn’t add up to me.”

Boyd is likely to challenge Plymale, who did not attend the forums because, he said, “they weren’t sanctioned by Beartooth Electric.” Plymale said he would run if nominated.

An 18-year veteran of the board, he has also served 10 years with the Montana Electric Cooperatives Association and has experience in cooperative ag lending through his work with the Great Falls Production Credit Association and Federal Land Bank. Plymale has supported the Highwood project from the start.

“I know of no other way to control power costs than owning our own generation,” he said.

Responding to charges of insufficient transparency, Plymale said the board and the cooperative have been as open as the law would allow. Regarding the mail ballot, he said he is neither for nor against it, but feels the idea needs further research. He would like to see the bylaw committee reactivated but believes it needs to be streamlined.

“It was clumsy, not organized well,” he said. “There were too many personalities involved.”

Melton, who may or may not face competition, has 15 years’ experience working for Georgia Power Co., where she was involved in power production, licensing and compliance procedures and training for construction of nuclear and fossil fuel plants.

Melton commended Beartooth for its “excellent job of power transmission” but opposes the Highwood plant and the co-op’s decision to take on power generation.

“I believe in community development to bring industry to support the customer base, good communication to the customers and promotion of energy conservation,” she said.

Wright said he decided against re-running because his business has grown and requires more time.

“I’m afraid it will take me away from my duties as a director,” he said.

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