Co-op trustees: Strong voices, guiding hands

“I’ve always been someone who was asking whether there was a better way of doing something, and I think trustees should always think that way, always be on the lookout for ways to improve the cooperative,” says John Martin, trustee at Firelands Electric.

John Martin braved one of those arctic January Ohio mornings to come from his home near New London to Columbus for training that would help him in his newest position.

Martin, a retired CSX signaling supervisor, had been elected to the Firelands Electric Cooperative board of directors only a few months earlier. Since a director’s decisions impact issues such as service rates, rights-of-way, and work plans, it’s a position of great responsibility. It requires people who understand their community’s needs and have a desire to serve the cooperative consumer-members’ best interests.

The class Martin and other directors and trustees from around the state were attending was designed specifically to help them think about strategic planning.

“When the cooperative’s members look at our trustees, they might not realize all the things that go into the job,” Martin says. “All of us in here took this job so we can help our cooperative and help our community, and we take these classes to make sure we know what we need to so we can do the best job possible.”

About 40 trustees from around the state came for that day’s class. They came from diverse backgrounds — teachers, retirees, homemakers, engineers, you name it — but they all came for that same reason.

“I think the main reason you become a trustee is because you’re community-minded, and you feel like you can help improve the quality of life for the people around you,” says Roberta Duncan, a trustee at Buckeye Rural Electric Cooperative in Rio Grande. “That’s what the co-op is there for, really, not just to provide electricity, but to make the whole community a better place, and the trustees have to play a big part in that.”

Mark Bailey spent 40 years working in the electric utility industry, including many of those for co-ops in different parts of the country.

“In my case, I was looking for a way to give back to my community and my industry,” says Bailey, who is first vice chair of the board at Pioneer Electric Cooperative in Piqua. “I think that good board members have to be good listeners so they know what the members are thinking, and they have to be willing to work hard for the good of the cooperative and all its members.”
Brice Turner says being elected to the board at Mid-Ohio Energy Cooperative in Kenton was eye-opening.

“Looking at the board from outside, you see the trustees having their meetings and maybe being out in the community, but there’s a lot more to the job than those things,” he says. “You have to make sure you understand all the issues that you deal with, so you put in a lot of time doing your own research or coming to these education and training sessions. It’s a lot of work, but not many people know or understand that’s part of being a trustee.”

Bailey also says there’s nothing special about the people who take on the responsibility, other than their willingness to do so. “Everyone around the board table at every cooperative is a member, just like every other member,” he says. “We all get our electric service from the cooperative, and that’s important because everyone should know that our decisions affect us just as much as they affect everyone else.”