Dissatisfied with decisions by the Beartooth Electric Cooperative board, a group of members is launching a drive to remove or replace a majority of the trustees.

Dick Nolan, a Luther-area resident and BEC member, said Tuesday that the group, calling itself the Fix BEC Committee, is targeting five of the seven trustees who voted to support increasing the debt limit for the construction of the Highwood Generating Station near Great Falls to $300 million.

Members also have had it with rate increases and secrecy surrounding meetings and decisions by BEC’s wholesale power supplier, Southern Montana Electric Generation and Transmission Cooperative, Nolan said.

The Fix BEC Committee believes it’s time to replace “those trustees who have failed miserably to represent members,” Nolan said.

Also, a series of meetings on the Highwood project and related issues will be held in the Red Lodge community and in Wyoming by different groups.

BEC will host Southern representatives in informational meetings about the Highwood project in the Red Lodge area and in Clark, Wyo., which is served by BEC.

And BEC members are hosting a talk in early August by Montana Public Service Commission Chairman Travis Kavulla, a Great Falls resident and outspoken critic of Southern. Southern has subpoenaed Kavulla for information in a lawsuit between Great Falls and Southern. The PSC has no regulatory authority over electric co-ops.

Southern is the Billings-based umbrella cooperative that is building the 120-megawatt natural gas Highwood plant. Southern also supplies its five member rural co-ops and the city of Great Falls with electricity through contracts.

Since December, Southern has approved three wholesale rate increases totaling 13.2 percent to cover losses from having to sell excess power in a depressed market and from losing customers. Some of those increases have been passed on by Southern’s members to its customers through retail rate increases.

The BEC trustees voted 5-2 in June to authorize Southern to double its debt limit to $300 million for the Highwood plant. Southern’s board, which includes BEC’s president, John Prinkki, then approved the increasing the funding limit at a special board meeting late

last month.

Nolan and at least 70 other members had signed a letter urging the BEC board to do an independent financial review of the Highwood plant before committing the co-op to a long-term financial obligation. The BEC board declined.

The recall petitions are for Prinkki and Joe Kern, whose terms don’t expire until next year, Nolan said. The committee also is trying to recruit members to run for election against trustees Allen Nordahl, Lance Million and Martin Kimmet at the annual meeting on Sept. 24.

BEC trustees Roxie Melton and Arleen Boyd are not targeted because they voted against the Highwood funding issue, Nolan said.

Nolan and another BEC member, Chris Storm of Luther, met this week with a Billings attorney to make sure the petition meets legal requirements. They plan to begin circulating the petition on Wednesday. Signatures from 300 co-op members are required to trigger a special recall election, Nolan said.

Nolan and Storm also met with Prinkki on Monday to inform him of the committee’s intentions.

“I didn’t want to blindside him,” Nolan said. “John thinks Southern’s and BEC’s interests are synonymous. That’s troublesome. What I see are members getting really upset about their bills climbing rapidly.”

Committee supporters also are concerned about exposing BEC members to long-term debt of possibly $500 million, including interest, for the Highwood plant, Nolan said.

With 26 years on the BEC board, Prinkki is the longest-serving trustee. “Of course I’m disappointed they feel this is a necessary action,” he said about the recall effort.

Prinkki said he is confident the BEC and Southern boards followed industry standards in conducting due diligence for financing the Highwood plant.

“We know there is risk either way,” Prinkki said. “We feel that building the project is a more reasonable risk to take.”

Contact Clair Johnson at cjohnson@billingsgazette.com or 657-1282.