An early voting option offered by Southwestern Electric Cooperative resulted in the organization’s highest voter turnout in decades, while the co-op’s annual meeting logged the lowest member attendance in 82 years—just as it was designed to do. “We’re an organization founded on democratic principles,” said Southwestern CEO Bobby Williams. “We wanted to encourage our members to participate in the election of directors, while keeping everyone safe in a time of COVID-19.”
In August, the cooperative’s board of directors put measures in place to encourage early voting and curb the spread of COVID-19. Southwestern Electric members earned a $50 bill credit by voting during the two weeks preceding the meeting. Members cast their ballots at drive-through polling stations the cooperative offered at its offices in Greenville, St. Jacob and St. Elmo. In total, 2,126 members claimed a bill credit for voting early.
By contrast, 35 members cast ballots the morning of the meeting, held Saturday, Sept. 12, at the Bond County Fairgrounds in Greenville, Ill. Members were invited to vote and leave the grounds or pull into a parking area, where they could watch the business meeting from their vehicles. Podium addresses were broadcast through speakers and by short-range FM radio. About two dozen members remained for the meeting, which lasted 40 minutes.
“This is the year a virus stopped the world from spinning,” Williams told attendees. “A year when words like quarantine, social distancing and COVID-19 entered everyday conversation. When businesses closed, anxiety escalated, and hundreds of thousands of lives were lost to a disease that months earlier we’d never heard of,” he said.
“I’ve often said it’s during the darkest days your cooperative shines brightest. Recent months have underscored that point. We’ve seen Southwestern come together as a cooperative and a community. Meeting your needs during the outbreak has challenged us to think in new ways, to operate with new methods, to put our planning into practice, and to be the best version of ourselves.”
Williams told members that in cooperation with the city of Troy, the Troy, Maryville, St. Jacob and Marine regional chamber of commerce, and Holiday Inn Express Troy, Southwestern Electric installed two new electric vehicle (EV) charging stations near Exit 18 off I-55/70. “The public charging stations will draw commerce off the interstate and into our co-op community,” he said. “It’s a testament to the commitment of our crews and project partners that the charging stations launched on time despite COVID-19.”
He also delivered a report on the co-op’s new residential EV program. “By this time next year, we’ll offer incentive rates for residential electric vehicle charging. For co-op members with EVs, that means a clean, quiet automobile charged at an economical rate from the comfort and convenience of your garage or driveway,” he said. “Each time you charge your EV at home, you’ll be investing in infrastructure that provides safe, reliable power for your house, your business, and your cooperative community.”
Williams reported that the co-op hit major milestones in infrastructure construction during the last year. “In May, we broke ground for Southwestern Electric Cooperative’s new Maple Grove Substation. Located near the I-270 and I-55/I-70 interchange north of Troy, Maple Grove will ensure reliability and reduce outage times for thousands of Southwestern Electric members. The substation is scheduled to go live in early 2021,” he said.
“Meanwhile, our Vandalia Substation has been providing power to Fayette County members since late last year. Built near Fayette County’s growing commercial district at the I-70 Vandalia exit, the substation limits service interruptions, reduces maintenance-related outages, and will accommodate future commercial and residential development. Taking care of our system so it takes care of you—seeing that it provides the power you need, safely, efficiently, when you need it—is what we’re here to do.”
Ann Schwarm, president of Southwestern Electric Cooperative, told members that co-op employees had worked creatively, collaboratively and safely to provide service in the midst of the COVID-19 outbreak. “While it wasn’t a windstorm or ice on the lines that toppled poles, pulled down wires and created the crisis, it was still a crisis. The same mode of response was necessary,” she said. “Unless you wanted to walk into our building to pay your bill, you probably didn’t realize anything had changed when we closed the lobbies and the cooperative moved to a remote work force. The crews in the field simply carried on, performing essential tasks, as always, but with heightened attention to CDC safety precautions, keeping themselves safe and keeping the members safe,” Schwarm said. “Whether they were working from their own home offices, at the co-op’s offices, or in the field, the employees brought to work each day the same professionalism and work ethic we have all come to expect and appreciate.”
Following the president’s address, Southwestern Electric members, directors and employees recognized longtime director Richard Gusewelle, who was retiring from the board. “Rich has long been Southwestern’s unofficial ambassador,” said Schwarm. “Others knew our cooperative because they knew Rich. In his 36 years as a director of Southwestern Electric Cooperative, Rich served as vice president, and on committees addressing our policies and bylaws, labor, business development, scholarships, emerging technology, and member and community engagement. He earned Credentialed Cooperative Director and Board Leadership certifications from the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, and closes his career on the board having earned the status of Director Gold, an honor held by only a few in the nation.”
Sandy Grapperhaus, vice president of Southwestern Electric, said Gusewelle was steadfast and supportive when she joined the board in 2011. “It was a turbulent time for the co-op, with major decisions facing the board. But having Rich there, with his level-headed way of addressing matters, gave me confidence that we would make informed decisions and do what was right for our members,” she said. “We will miss his knowledge, honesty and wisdom.”
Gusewelle said when he was elected to the board in 1984, his first objective was to resolve issues with Southwestern Electric’s wholesale power contract. “At that time, our contract with Soyland Power Cooperative was forcing us to continually raise our rates. I felt challenged at that time to get on the board to do what I could to help.”
He pointed out that, with the support of the membership, Southwestern had successfully met many challenges in the years since. “When I’ve networked with other directors at national and regional meetings, I’ve been proud to represent Southwestern as a progressive co-op that remains on the cutting edge. I envision this approach continuing into the future,” he said. “Thank you for allowing me to represent you for the past 36 years.”
Following Gusewelle’s address, members received election results. Southwestern Electric members elected one member from each of the cooperative’s three voting districts to serve on the board of directors.
From District I, Marvin Warner of Pocahontas defeated candidates Mark Gusewelle, Arthur W. “Bill” Schnur and Chris Burcham, all of Edwardsville. Warner received 846 votes, Gusewelle received 816 votes, Schnur received 235 votes, and 174 votes were cast for Burcham.
Sandy Nevinger of Greenville and Annette Hartlieb of Vandalia were elected by acclamation to represent Districts II and III respectively.
Each director will serve a three-year term on the board.
Based in Greenville, Ill., Southwestern Electric is a not-for-profit, member-owned cooperative serving more than 23,500 residential, commercial, agricultural and industrial members in parts of Bond, Clay, Clinton, Fayette, Effingham, Macoupin, Madison, Marion, Montgomery, Shelby and St. Clair Counties.
PHOTO CAPTION (See attachment): Three members of Southwestern Electric Cooperative were elected to the co-op’s board of directors during Southwestern Electric’s 82nd Annual Meeting of Members, held Saturday, Sept. 12, at the Bond County Fairgrounds in Greenville, Ill. Pictured are (l-r) Marvin Warner of Pocahontas, Sandy Nevinger of Greenville and Annette Hartlieb of Vandalia. Each director will serve a three-year term on the board.