Safety first: Co-ops adjust to protect members

With social distancing the order of the day, the generations-old annual meeting traditions of electric cooperatives in Kentucky have adopted pandemic safety protocols in 2020.

“Like schools, churches and businesses, each co-op has had to assess how best to operate and engage with its membership at this extraordinary time,” says Chris Perry, president and CEO of Kentucky Electric Cooperatives. “Many co-ops have had no choice but to cancel their annual meeting.”

Members always come first, says Ted Hampton, president/CEO of Cumberland Valley Electric, Gray. “As things became more restrictive across the Commonwealth, we soon realized we could not ensure everybody’s safety at an annual meeting,” he says.

The Warren RECC board, Bowling Green, reached the same decision, “and felt rescheduling for 2021 was the best way to ensure the health and safety of both our members and our employees,” says co-op communicator Kim Phelps, of the 62,000 member co-op, which updated its membership via an annual report published in Kentucky Living.

For some co-ops, the dates and circumstances of their annual meetings have enabled them to safely squeeze in the events between health advisories and state restrictions.

“It was unlike any other annual meeting in our 82-year history,” says Joni Hazelrigg, president and CEO of Fleming-Mason Energy. “In times like these, we must all be flexible and innovative.” The Flemingsburg co-op conducted drive-thru registration, with members staying in their vehicles and listening to the business meeting on the radio.

“Members voted on measures by honking their horns—certainly a unique way of holding a meeting. But in unique times, it worked wonderfully!” Hazelrigg says.

Employees of Grayson RECC, Grayson, braved heavy rain to register members for the co-op’s business meeting, which was presented live on its Facebook page. “I spoke to a couple of members who said they hoped that we would be back to normal next year,” says Grayson RECC Executive Assistant Kim Bush.

As for West Kentucky Rural Electric Cooperative, Maysville, “We researched our options with help from Kentucky Electric Cooperatives and elected to hold a virtual business meeting accessible through our website in conjunction with drive-thru registration events in each of the four counties we serve,” explains co-op President & CEO David Smart. “The feedback from members was positive and they seemed to appreciate our effort to engage safely in spite of the restrictions.”

“Our members were happy to drive through and pick up their buckets and bulbs as usual,” says John May, manager of administrative services at Licking Valley RECC, West Liberty. “Everyone seemed to understand why the annual event was modified.”

Todd Blackburn, marketing and external affairs manager at Meade County RECC, Brandenberg, says its drive-thru meeting turnout was similar to 2019. “Obviously, we all would have preferred a traditional annual meeting, but due to the circumstances, the event was well received.”

Nolin RECC’s social distancing efforts in Elizabethtown included spreading out the length of registration, with 2,600 members registering over a three-day period, followed by a live-streamed business session.

“Overall, both members and employees were very happy with how the new format allowed for an annual meeting that followed current public health guidelines,” says Sarah Fellows, communications manager at Nolin RECC.

Shelby Energy, Shelbyville, lengthened drive-thru registration hours and printed signs requesting members to wear masks and leave their window cracked, with ID ready.

“We wore our masks, too, took shifts and had plenty of hand sanitizer,” says Melanie Crossfield, communications and staff assistant. “We hosted a virtual business meeting on Facebook, over the radio, our website and via Zoom.”

Co-ops that needed to conduct voting implemented online tools that have become commonplace in the pandemic workplace.

“We wanted to ensure our members had access to our meeting and could participate with motions, votes and other business, while also ensuring the safety of everyone involved” says Mike Stafford, vice president of member services at Owen Electric, Owenton. “WebEx Events provided a platform that achieved every goal we had to meet with our annual meeting.”

Throughout the pandemic, co-op managers and staff participated in conference calls with other Kentucky co-ops to share ideas and learn from one another’s experiences.

If restrictions allow, Jackson Purchase Energy, Paducah, plans to apply the lessons learned from other co-ops during its rescheduled annual meeting online September 15.

“For the safety of our employees and members, registration will be held in a drive-thru fashion with members remaining in their vehicles and employees maintaining proper social distancing guidelines,” says Executive Assistant Amy Vick.

“Though Kentucky co-ops share a common purpose and are dedicated to improving the quality of life of the members they serve, each co-op is unique and has had to make a tough call in the best interests of its own members,” Perry said.