Burt Williams and Charles Sangmeister, both members of the Beartooth Electric Cooperative, are all for member involvement when it comes to their electric cooperative.

That’s why the two Stillwater County residents applied for positions on the co-op’s bylaw committee last fall and that’s why they launched a petition last week.

The petition, now circulating among co-op members and available online through a link at www.stillwaterprotectiveassociation.org, directs the co-op board to prepare bylaw amendments that would institute a vote by mail, clarify and simplify the process for members seeking special meetings and make information more accessible online.

While the petition addresses transparency in general, the vote-by-mail issue has been the topic of considerable discussion. Sangmeister and Williams believe voting by mail complies with the cooperative’s principle of promoting democratic member control.

“Right now, voting is limited to just 200 or so members who attend a meeting in Roberts on one day a year,” Sangmeister said. “There’s no voice for several thousand others. Why should they be disenfranchised?”

Montana’s rural electric cooperatives are regulated through member participation and not the Public Service Commission. Unless a special meeting is called, the opportunity for member participation is limited to the annual meeting.

Last year, 216 of Beartooth’s 4,300-plus members, roughly 5 percent, cast ballots at the annual meeting. Beartooth serves Stillwater, Sweetgrass, and Carbon counties in Montana and a portion of Park County in Wyoming.

Besides being co-op customers, Williams and Sangmeister are both active members of the Stillwater Protective Association, a citizen resource council. The petition is presented and supported by Beartooth members who are also members of the SPA or Carbon County Resource Council.

Sangmeister said they hope to gather signatures from at least 450 to 500 Beartooth members, enough to meet the statutory requirement of 10 percent of the co-op membership. To qualify the matter for the co-op’s annual meeting on Sept. 25, they have until Aug. 6 to meet their goal. If they fail to gather enough signatures by then, but eventually reach their target, the petition would trigger a special meeting of the cooperative membership.

Under either scenario, Sangmeister said, members would then have an opportunity to vote on the mail ballot issue.

To put their task in context, the Beartooth Vigilance Committee, a self-formed group of Beartooth co-op members, began collecting signatures for a petition more than a year ago and have yet to reach the 400 mark. Their petition seeks to amend co-op bylaws to require a vote of the membership for matters relating to power generation and funding of Southern Montana Electric and SME, the cooperative working on the Highwood power plant.

Only three Montana electric cooperatives have provisions allowing vote-by-mail. One of them is Flathead Electric Cooperative in northwestern Montana. Bev McGuire, executive director there, said vote-by-mail is a trend among co-ops nationwide.

Before Flathead switched to mail-in ballots sometime around 2003, the cooperative had trouble attracting 300 voting members to its annual meeting, she said. Since the change, the number of ballots has jumped more than tenfold. Now, the 50,000-plus member co-op receives about 5,000 votes in the mail.

“We sure get a lot more participation that way,” she said.

But vote-by-mail is not cheap. Printing ballots, covering the cost of mailings and hiring an independent party to count the ballots adds up, she said.

John Prinkki, president of the Beartooth board, estimates a mail-in ballot could cost as much as $15,000. Sangmeister counters that figure, saying there are ways to include volunteers and keep costs down.

The mail ballot was under discussion by Beartooth’s bylaw committee earlier this year when the co-op’s board of directors suspended committee activities in May.

With the suspension in place, Williams and Sangmeister decided not to waste time.

“They didn’t give us a date or a position (on reconvening the committee),” Williams said. “We decided if they weren’t going to proceed we would proceed.”

Beartooth General Manager Ron Roodell said the board plans to reconvene the bylaws committee this fall.

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