RED LODGE -- The Beartooth Electric Cooperative should have an interim manager on board within two weeks time, according to an update during the board's March meeting in Red Lodge on Friday.
Beartooth trustee Arleen Boyd reported that the search committee had narrowed a field of 20 candidates to five, each of whom will be interviewed in person next week.
"It was surprising how many really good, qualified candidates were out there," she said, "people who wanted to be here and wanted to do the job."
The interim manager will replace former manager Ron Roodell, who left his position at the end of February. The interim manager will take the helm at Beartooth while the board conducts a more exhaustive process to hire a permanent manager.
During Friday's meeting, trustees provided updates on several matters - transparency, communication, policies, due diligence and rates -- that surfaced in response to Beartooth's involvement with Southern Montana Electric Generation and Transmission Cooperative. Southern is the umbrella co-op that supplies power to Beartooth and four other rural cooperatives, as well as the City of Great Falls. Southern's decision to build the Highwood Generating Station outside Great Falls generated considerable controversy among co-op members. In October of 2011, just one month after Phase I of the plant was completed, Southern filed for bankruptcy. As proceedings continue, Beartooth, Great Falls and the other member cooperatives wait to see how the bankruptcy will affect their co-ops and their members.
Meanwhile, the Beartooth board created committees to address key issues.
· Transparency. During Friday's meeting, the board approved a set of minimum, non-binding accountability standards suggested by the Montana Electric Cooperative Association. Though several board members expressed reservations that the standards were not tight enough, the approval reflected the board's consensus that the MECA resolution offered a step in the right direction. "We could make them (standards) more rigorous at our level," Boyd added.
· Communications. The committee presented a plan listing a variety of ways to improve communications with members. Suggestions include meetings, newspaper articles, member surveys and social media. The plan also suggests specific improvements to the co-op website, including a "frequently asked questions" section, links to media reports on Beartooth and Southern and a history of how Beartooth arrived at its current status.
"We want the members to understand what we're doing and why and we need to understand how members feel about our performance," said trustee Dick Nolan.
· Southern and spinoffs SME and IESS (Independent Electric Supply Service). Boyd noted the latter two entities have failed to respond to written requests for information from Beartooth. She also explained her reason for not voting to fill officer positions during Southern's annual meeting earlier in March.
"Until those (Southern's) bylaws require best business practices and responsible behavior, we are not voting for officers," she said.
· Rates. Although Southern is now purchasing power at drastically reduced costs on the open market, those savings are not being passed on to the consumer, Boyd said. The difference will go to pay creditors for Southern's bills related to Highwood. According to bankruptcy filings, that bill will run in excess of $1 million a month, starting in May.
· Policies. In preparation for a policy review, trustee Pat Hoffman discovered pages and even whole sections of the manual gone.
"Almost the entire section of policies for employees is missing," she said.
· Due diligence. Boyd said the due diligence committee has met with five generation and transmission cooperatives, as well as other rural electric cooperatives, to assess power supply options that might be available to Beartooth should its contract with Southern dissolve.
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