ROBERTS — Members of the Beartooth Electric Cooperative opted for change during their annual meeting Saturday at Roberts High School.
The record crowd of 463 members — roughly 200 more than showed up last year — chose three newcomers over incumbents during trustee elections. Co-op members also passed all bylaw changes, including a provision that will allow vote by mail, by an overwhelming margin.
In District 1, members elected Dan Dutton of Belfry over incumbent Martin Kimmet, of Clark, Wyo., 290 to 164. In District 3, Pat Hoffman of Roberts garnered 238 votes, unseating incumbent Lance Million, also of Roberts, by 18 votes. And in District 7, newcomer Dave Peterson of Reed Point unseated incumbent Allen Nordahl of Molt, with 250 votes to 201 votes.
All incumbents had supported the Highwood Generation Station, a power plant under construction by Southern Montana Electric, the umbrella cooperative that supplies power to Beartooth. Phase I of Highwood went online Sept. 15. The three incumbent board members had recently voted to authorize an additional $300 million to build Phase II.
The three newly-elected candidates questioned the Highwood project, citing recent rate increases and the lack of an independent analysis of Phase II. All three also campaigned on the need for more transparency.
Their positions seem to reflect those expressed by trustees Arleen Boyd of Fishtail and Roxie Melton of Boyd, who were elected during last year's annual meeting. Therefore, Saturday's results suggest a tip in balance on the board.
The election could have significant implications for Southern. If Beartooth joins Yellowstone Valley Electric Cooperative and the City of Great Falls in opposing rate increases and other Southern proposals, the six-member Southern board could find itself stymied by tie votes.
The elections followed a lengthy and divisive controversy within the co-op membership. Member Deb Thomas of Clark, Wyo., said she has been working toward change in the co-op for five years. She was glad to see the turnout as well as the vote outcome.
"What I work for all the time is to try to get people to take part in their government and vote," she said.
Member Gary Buchanan, referring to the barrage of letters to the editor in local newspapers, asked members to cease the name calling.
"I plead with you to quit using the word 'outsider'," he said. "Everyone in this room is an insider."
Before the ballots were cast, candidates spoke about themselves and their reasons for running.
Dutton said he could not promise rates would not increase but pledged to keep them as low as possible. He also vowed that his first allegiance, as a trustee, would be to the Beartooth membership.
"In the past few years, I have seen a shift from member-ownership control to ownership by Southern," he said.
Peterson echoed Dutton's sentiments, stressing the need to work together through the challenges ahead.
Hoffman referred to her background in business management and accounting as strengths for her role as a trustee. She proposed freezing plans for Phase II of Highwood as Beartooth re-examines its relationship with Southern.
Immediately following the election, all board members convened to elect officers. Melton was elected board president, Dutton was elected vice president, Hoffman was elected secretary/treasurer and trustee Joe Kern was elected assistant secretary/treasurer. Board members elected Boyd to serve as Beartooth's representative on the boards of both Southern and the related SME.
Of the seven-member board, only John Prinkki, with 26 years as a trustee, has more than two years experience on the board.
Also on Saturday, a group of Beartooth members that formed Fix BEC sent out a press release announcing that they had gathered sufficient signatures to recall Prinkki and Kern. According to a letter from Dick Nolan of Fix BEC, the signatures were submitted to Beartooth on Sept. 23. When questioned during the meeting, Prinkki said it will take time to confirm signatures. He expects the outcome will be discussed at the October board meeting.
Besides Beartooth's shift in board makeup, members gave a resounding vote of support for proposed bylaw changes. Though some members objected to specific changes, including a change that would authorize board members — rather than the general membership — to fill board vacancies, more than 300 of the 463 members present voted in favor of all amendments. Key among those changes was vote by mail, which will be available to members for the next election.
Also during Saturday's meeting, Beartooth general manger Ron Roodell summarized recent rate increases at Beartooth. Two increases since January totaled 9 percent and a third will go into effect on Sept. 28. The latest rate increase comes as a 4 percent increase for power and a 1.5 percent increase to the base charge, raising it to $33.50.