Customers of Tri-County Co-Op 'disgusted' with board's compensation, move to oust trustees

Customers of Midlands electric co-op 'disgusted' with board's compensation, move to oust trustees

COLUMBIA, SC (WIS) - Customers of a Midlands electric co-op upset over what they're calling "excessive compensation" of the co-op's board of trustees are gearing up to fire the members at an upcoming special meeting.

In May, a Richland County man, Roy C. Smith, filed a class action lawsuit against Tri-County Electric Co-Op seeking to represent all of the customers who paid bills to the co-op from May 22, 2015, to the present date and excludes any board members, trustees, or employees.

The suit alleges board members awarded themselves an excess of $6 million since 2004 to the detriment of its customers as a part of a "compensation scheme."

According to tax documents, some board members are paid $70,000 a year, which is $55,000 more than the national average. In some cases, high ranking board members make more than $100,000 per year.

"How they justify that in their minds...how just a basic sense of shame didn't cause them to turn away that kind of compensation just blows my mind," Graham Newman, the attorney representing Smith said.

Newman said the co-op responded to the lawsuit and he is currently waiting on documents such as tax returns, minutes of special meetings and receipts justifying expenses on behalf of board members.

"The most disturbing thing I've found is that in 2008, which is the year the worldwide economy collapsed, the board awarded itself ridiculous salaries, several of the board members made in excess of 100,000 that year," Newman said.

Helen Bradley lives in Hopkins and has been a Tri-County Electric Co-Op customer for more than 40 years. Every month, she said her electric bill runs her anywhere from $250 to $300.

She found out about the allegations of excessive compensation at the co-op's annual May meeting.

"It was unbelievable because the rates we pay are so high, we're the highest paying customers and we're supposed to be member driven and to me, that was taking advantage of the members," she said.

As a result, Bradley and several other co-op members began circulating a petition aimed at requesting a special meeting with the board of trustees.

Tri-County Electric Co-Op CEO Chad Lowder said as of this week, more than 1,400 Tri-County members in Calhoun, Orangeburg, Richland, Lexington, Kershaw, and Sumter counties have signed the petition, reaching the amount required to schedule the meeting to address whether the board remains in office.

Lowder also said at least five percent of the membership, or 681 members, must attend the special meeting for the vote to take effect. At the meeting, board members will be offered the microphone and a chance to explain why they should remain in office.

Bradley is confident enough customers will show up to the meeting to have a vote.

"We'll definitely be taking a closer eye and based on what we're looking to see happen," she said. "We want to see them paid a reasonable salary opposed to what these board members get. And if you don't need a special meeting, don't have one."

A date for the special meeting is said to be determined at the regularly scheduled meeting on July 19.

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