Even though 2020 has been a year defined by the unexpected, the management of Sam Houston Electric Cooperative was still surprised by one important result of this year’s online annual meeting.
“Participation in our board election actually increased,” said Keith Stapleton, Sam Houston EC chief communications officer. Stapleton noted that a five-year high of 8,387 ballots were cast by Co-op members. All ballots were either mailed or submitted online during the four weeks preceding the meeting. The ballots were counted June 8, and the results announced June 9 during the virtual meeting.
Rachel Frey, Sam Houston EC communications specialist, explained that approximately 1,000 Sam Houston EC members attend the typical annual meeting. This year, about 300 people followed the meeting virtually.
“I missed the cookies,” said member Jerry Best of Jasper in a telephone conversation, “but this was a great alternative, considering what’s going on in the world today.” Best’s grandfather first connected with the Co-op in the mid-1940s, and the family has been a member at the homeplace ever since.
Sam Houston EC member Nancy Stovall of Livingston echoed Best’s appraisal of the virtual event. “It went smoothly,” Stovall said. “We had a church meeting on Zoom and the same for the chamber of commerce, so I guess this is part of our new normal.”
Stapleton hopes the online meeting does not become a habit. “While the virtual meeting was necessary and very cost-effective,” he said, “it wasn’t the same as meeting with our members in person.”
The virtual meeting included components that members have come to expect of the annual gathering in Livingston. Members who logged in before the start time found a slideshow that offered insights into the Co-op’s history, its current operations and its role in the community. Early birds learned that the Co-op awards $80,000 in scholarships annually and manages more than 6,000 miles of power lines in 10 counties.
After Stapleton called the meeting to order, board Treasurer Don Boyett, who represents District 1 in the Onalaska area, offered the invocation. Next, communications specialist Chad Simon, a Marine veteran, led the Pledge of Allegiance. Simon was followed by Elina Hobbs, a Sam Houston EC employee and Navy veteran, singing the national anthem.
Board President Robert Boyd, representing District 3 in Tyler and Jasper counties, explained the basics of the board election and introduced attorney Mark Davis, who confirmed the provision of the notice for the meeting and distribution of ballots by mail and email to all Co-op members. Incumbent directors Robert Boyd and Milton Purvis were reelected.
The required notification to members about the change to a virtual meeting was a challenge, Stapleton said. The decision to take the annual meeting online and hold it virtually was made in late April, when most of the state was shut down by the governor’s order. That allowed about five weeks to get a process in place and inform all the members about the change.
Following the announcement of election results, CEO Doug Turk shared the Co-op’s accomplishments of the past year. “2019 was a year of major milestones for Sam Houston Electric Co-op,” he said. The Co-op’s crowning achievement, Turk said, was earning an American Customer Satisfaction Index score of 90. “This places Sam Houston Electric Co-op in an elite group at the national level,” he said. “Only a handful of co-ops nationwide receive a score of 90 or higher.”
Other accomplishments of 2019 included the return of $4 million in retired patronage capital in September and the awarding of $5 million in energy credits on members’ December bills.
Turk noted that 2020 has already been a year of challenges, and half the year is still to come. “We’ve seen the COVID-19 pandemic, many spring storms and a devastating tornado outbreak that affected the Onalaska and Seven Oaks areas of our system,” he said. Despite these challenges, the Co-op’s employees have embraced the opportunity to become stronger and serve members even better.
The question-and-answer session gave Turk the opportunity to speak to members from his desk and explain that the Co-op is addressing concerns about growth in Liberty County with new substations and that the long-awaited Lake Livingston hydroelectric project will start coming online in the coming months.
Following a video tribute to Cooperative employees, 25 door prizes, including a riding lawn mower, $2,000 bill credit and $100 Visa gift cards, were announced. All members who cast a ballot for the board election were included in the drawing.
“This process really has opened our eyes to the many possibilities of using an online platform for communicating with our members,” Stapleton said. “It won’t totally replace in-person meetings, but it is a great additional tool.”