State Rep. Levy plans bill to clean up electric co-op elections

A Boulder lawmaker says she’ll introduce a bill in the upcoming legislative session aimed at cleaning up questionable campaign practices in rural electric association board elections. State Rep. Claire Levy told The Colorado Independent earlier this week that she is still working on a draft of the bill she’ll introduce in the upcoming legislative session that starts Jan. 13, but she outlined the basics.

Rep. Claire Levy, D-Boulder
Rep. Claire Levy, D-Boulder

“What I want to be dealing with is making sure that all the [REA] members have adequate information about how to get on the ballot, that they have equal access to the names and contact information for REA members, that the REA is not sending out election propaganda on behalf of incumbents using ratepayer funds,” Levy said.

Levy, a Democrat, did not specify which of the state’s 22 member-owned electric co-ops engaged in election practices necessitating such reform, but she did say she’s discussed the bill with the Colorado Rural Election Association, which represents 21 of the co-ops that provide power in most of rural Colorado.

The state’s largest REA — the nearly 138,000-member Intermountain Rural Electric Association — bowed out of the CREA because of increasing pressure to increase renewable energy portfolios. The IREA was targeted by three clean-energy candidates running in its board election last spring, but all three came up short amid allegations the process was skewed to favor incumbents.

IREA board member Mike Kempe, who works at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, agrees co-op election reform is needed.

“The process needs to be more open,” he said. “For most co-ops, these things aren’t as much of an issue, but the IREA in particular went through a long period of time when virtually none of the elections were contested, and to my knowledge, IREA has not given advance notice of elections coming up to the general membership.”

Levy said her bill will address transparency, compelling co-ops — which are not governed by the Colorado Public Utilities Commission to publicize board elections and meetings and facilitate forums for dissent.

“I’m going to have some language in there about just basic information about the annual meetings and regular meetings they have, where they are, making sure that members of the electric association have an opportunity to express their issues and concerns at the meetings,” Levy said.

William Schroeder, IREA’s manager of public affairs, said Levy has a green vendetta against the association because of its outspoken stance opposing efficiency rebates and renewable energy mandates. Schroeder, a Republican former state senator, said IREA’s election policy is completely fair and well-publicized to its membership.

“We used third parties to count ballots, candidates were able to take themselves or their representatives to look at the count on the ballots, so I don’t know really what she’s after,” Schroeder said of Levy.

“It’s more on the basis that we’re not supportive of her green-energy direction, and that’s what I’ve noticed coming from her in the past,” said Schroeder. “It’s more, just like it was last year, retaliation for us being very vocal about her trying to direct costs on energy.”

A grassroots clean-energy advocacy group called IREA Voices formed after the co-op committed $366 million to Xcel Energy’s new Comanche 3 coal-fired power in Pueblo. IREA Voices backed the three challengers last spring, charging the board was investing far too much in dirtier-burning coal given looming federal climate change legislation.

Critics charged IREA incumbents and General Manager Stan Lewandowski of improperly spending ratepayer funds to campaign last spring, keeping basic information such as the mailing date of ballots from challengers and co-op members and sending out mailers supporting the platforms of the incumbents.

A key part of any election reform legislation, Kempe said, should be a disclosure requirement compelling campaign donors to be listed on REA websites.

“Our general manager donated several thousand dollars to the campaigns of the incumbents,” Kempe said. “At the very least that’s unethical. My understanding is that from a legal standpoint — it’s First Amendment rights, freedom of speech — you can’t prevent someone from helping out who they want. But there needs to be some sort of disclosure. People should know who’s funding what campaign.”

Schroeder said he was unaware of Lewandowski’s contributions to incumbent board members but supported the general manager’s right to donate to any type of political campaign.

“He has every right to do that and he has every right to donate to congressional races and he has every right to donate to others,” Schroeder said. “But just take a look at what money [clean-energy] campaigns have raised in the past. They’ve spent major dollars in the past, plus they had no difficulty getting on the ballot. I don’t understand what [Levy’s] concern is.”

Kempe said co-op employees contributing to and campaigning for board members who will then set their salaries raises all sorts of ethical issues. Mike Galvin, a former school principal who came the closest to winning a seat last spring, agrees.

“We’re supposed to have fair elections in this country, and everything we do, especially in a co-op, is predicated on the notion that elections are fair and everyone has an equal chance to go for a position, and when that doesn’t happen it’s not really a co-op anymore,” Galvin said.

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