What a year it has been! From indictments to elections, 2011 was chock full of news and excitement for Cobb EMC members who finally began to reform and repair the long-suffering co-op. Take Back Cobb EMC was here for it all and today we’re going back to review the year that was.
January: Dwight Brown indicted, for the first time
The year started quietly enough, with little news pushing the reform movement forward. However, just days after the peach dropped, Cobb County District Attorney dropped a bombshell in the lap of Cobb EMC. Dwight Brown, the longtime president and CEO of the company, was indicted on 31 felony counts of theft, racketeering and false statement.
Dwight Brown’s attorney, former Georgia governor Roy Barnes, argued that the indictment was invalid because it was delivered in a closed courtroom: Cobb County’s new courthouse was not yet officially open for business. Judge Robert Flournoy III, a Barnes appointee, heard arguments for and against tossing the indictment and subsequently ruled in favor of Brown.
The ruling infuriated both Cobb EMC members and Cobb District Attorney Pat Head, who claimed that it could affect many more indictments that were delivered on the day Brown was formally charged. Mr. Head appealed the ruling and a decision has yet to be reached.
February/March: Dwight Brown retires, then rehired
The 2008 lawsuit settlement agreement stipulated that Dwight Brown would resign on or before February 28, 2011. Brown took that action, officially retiring as president and CEO on the last possible day. However, the EMC quickly announced that Brown would remain at Cobb EMC as a “consultant,” but refused to disclose his pay or responsibilities in that position.
It was later revealed that Mr. Brown was making $60,000 per month and collected $1.5 million in salary and consulting fees from December 2008 through July 2011.
March: Take Back Cobb EMC launches petition drive
In March, Take Back Cobb EMC officially launched a petition drive to force Cobb EMC to hold a special meeting for its members. The launch was met with widespread enthusiasm among Cobb EMC members, many of whom attended the petition launch event. In all, TBCE collected over 1100 petition signatures that turned up the pressure on the board to finally let members have a voice at their co-op. The petition signatories started a movement that led to the elections of reform board members and finally bringing reform to Cobb EMC.
May: EMC members request federal investigation
In May, Dan Davis and Mark Hackett, two outspoken, determined and concerned Cobb EMC members filed a petition with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) requesting an investigation of wrongdoing by Cobb EMC. Since the Public Service Commission does not regulate EMCs, there is very little oversight, especially when members are disenfranchised, but since Cobb EMC is such a large co-op FERC has some jurisdiction. Among other allegations, Davis and Hackett claimed that when Cobb EMC created Cobb Energy, they never disclosed any information regarding the relationship between the two companies to FERC. While the initial request was denied, Davis and Hackett appealed and are still awaiting a decision.
June: Georgia Supreme Court rules against proxies
The long court battle over EMC elections finally reached the Georgia Supreme Court in June with a victory for the plaintiffs and EMC members desperate for reform. In a decisive 6-1 ruling, the Court determined that the EMC could not use proxy ballots for EMC board elections. The decision helped clear a path for fair and open elections, although a new settlement that included provisions for elections needed to be hammered out by both parties and Superior Court Judge Stephen Schuster.
June/July: Attempt to rehire Brown rejected; Brown re-indicted
In late June and early July, Dwight Brown was dealt a series of crushing blows that put his future at Cobb EMC in serious jeopardy. First, the Cobb EMC board voted to rehire Dwight Brown as the EMC’s president and CEO, despite the settlement agreement mandated Brown’s retirement. The action forced both Cobb EMC and the plaintiffs back into court as both sides argued in front of Judge Schuster over whether Brown should or should not be allowed to lead the co-op.
Schuster reaffirmed the settlement agreement, stating that the settlement was crystal clear in its language regarding Brown’s employment at the EMC. He could no longer serve as the president and CEO.
Just two weeks later, Brown was re-indicted on the same 31 charges as the January indictment, plus four new charges of threatening and intimidating witnesses. Once again Brown’s attorney, Roy Barnes, is challenging the indictment. Mr. Barnes claims that since five members of the grand jury that indicted Mr. Brown for a second time are Cobb EMC members, the indictment is invalid.
A hearing was held in early December and Judge Flournoy is expected to rule on the matter in early January.
August: Schuster chastises board and elections are set
In early August, both parties returned to court to craft a new agreement that would include a timeline for board elections. Judge Schuster ordered all ten sitting board members to attend a hearing, at which he chastised the board for its attempts to rehire Dwight Brown and the slow moving process to liquidate several former subsidiaries of Cobb Energy.
Both sides settled on a date of September 17 for a special meeting of the members. Elections would follow in November 2011, February and May of 2012.
September: EMC members turn out en masse to vote down mail-in ballots
September 17, 2011 will be remembered as the day Cobb EMC members finally took back their co-op and spoke loudly at a boisterous meeting and subsequent election. The members, attending their first meeting in three years, vented their frustrations at the actions and inactions of the current board and voted on two key bylaw amendments. First, and most importantly, was an amendment that would allow for board elections by mail-in ballot. The measure was quite controversial, as it did not preclude the EMC from spending unlimited amounts of money in support of the incumbent board members. Concerned that the mail-in ballot provision would stack the deck in favor of the current board, members voted down the measure by a margin of 2,561 to 1,113. It was a resounding victory for the reform movement and set the stage for in-person elections in November.
The second item up for a vote—to eliminate cushy retirement benefits for future board members—passed overwhelmingly as well.
October: Cobb EMC Owners Association Vets and Endorses Candidates
As board elections approached, the Cobb EMC Owners’ Association, a campaign group formed by the plaintiffs who sued Cobb EMC in 2007, invited all reform candidates to a series of vetting meetings. At these crucial events, EMC members heard directly from the board candidates and voted on whom the Owners Association would endorse for each of the four seats up for election. The members in attendance voted to endorse Ed Crowell in Area 1, David Tennant in Area 6, Malcolm Swanson in Area 7 and Cheryl Meadows for Area 10.
As elections approached, two incumbents, Area 1’s Don Barnett and Area 6’s Al Fortney, decided not to seek reelection in the November elections.
Following the endorsements, TBCE, the Owners’ Association and dedicated volunteers took to the streets and the phones to campaign on behalf of the endorsed candidates. As the calendar turned to November, victory was near.
November: A Clean Sweep! Four new board members elected
On November 12, 2011, Cobb EMC members voted in the first board elections since 2007, finally casting their votes for Areas 1, 6, 7 and 10. In a resounding victory, members elected all four of the Owners Associations endorsed candidates. Ed Crowell, David Tennant and Cheryl Meadows all won their seats with overwhelming majorities, while Area 7 candidate Charles Malcolm Swanson was only 12 votes shy of a majority vote.
Cobb EMC bylaws require a majority vote (50 percent +1) to win a board seat. Mr. Swanson won nearly 49.5 percent of the vote, with incumbent R.J. Patel placing a distant second with less than 15 percent. After careful consideration, Mr. Patel conceded the race to Mr. Swanson.
Onward to 2012!
The hard work of the lawsuit plaintiffs, reform groups, the journalists (a special thanks to the Marietta Daily Journal for their incredible coverage) who got the facts out there, and, most importantly, YOU, the members who dedicated dollars and countless hours to reform Cobb EMC, paid off. The new board members have already dedicated themselves to reforming Cobb EMC, enacting new transparency measures and spending as much time as necessary to grasp the complicated issues surrounding Cobb EMC.
As we turn the calendar to a new year, it’s our responsibility to continue our work. The next set of elections will determine whether we have a majority of the board dedicated to reform and transparency at Cobb EMC. We also need to continue to support reform initiatives, weigh in at member meetings, and never let our co-op run away again. We’ve come a long way in the last year, and next year promises more excitement as we Take Back Cobb EMC!