SMECO members get a chance to get questions answered

Annual meeting picks directors also

Friday, Aug. 29, 2008

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Staff photos by GARY SMITH
Tim Young signs for the hearing impaired as Rachel Escolopio sings ‘‘The Star Spangled Banner” at the Southern Maryland Electric Cooperative’s 70th annual meeting Wednesday in Hughesville. SMECO

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Ron and Janice Gibson, left, and Kim McFarlin, all from Charlotte Hall, dig into their free ice cream at the meeting.

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President and CEO Joe Slater answers a member’s question.

Joe Slater was very diplomatic.

As a disgruntled Southern Maryland Electric Cooperative customer questioned the company’s spending and motives for Spanish language telephone prompts, salaries of its 10 highest-paid executives, why it keeps union employees when Maryland is an at-will state and why it only has one public meeting a year, at its 70th annual member meeting Wednesday night, the president and CEO calmly answered her questions, even as many of the 1,299 audience members sighed, rolled their eyes and applauded when she was finished. The woman didn’t give her name.

‘‘This is a unique feature of a co-op model. It’s really a good model from the customer perspective. They can express their concerns. You never know what it’s going to be. It keeps us on our toes,” Slater said before the official meeting kicked off. ‘‘We recognize these are record-high [energy] prices people are dealing with.”

Talks by Slater and Bill Brier, vice president of policy and public affairs for the Edison Electric Institute, revolved around initiatives the company is taking toward energy efficiency and independence, such as the current rollout of a $35 million CoolSentry load management program that allows the company to better scale back customer usage during peak hours from a control center. Customers could save 15 percent on heating and cooling bills and will receive a free thermostat worth $300 and $50 in annual credits toward their bills. SMECO also plans to increase the amount of the renewable generation each year, from 3 percent currently, over the next few years. Slater said a plan for a $45 million automated metering initiative to monitor energy use is in its infancy stages, though SMECO may have to jump through some regulatory hoops.

‘‘This will allow us to allow our customers to assert some control over their usage,” he said.

Slater also confirmed SMECO’s support for a third reactor at Calvert Cliffs Nuclear Power Plant to ease a projected transmission network shortfall and import fees to meet a 30 percent electricity demand increase in coming years.

‘‘This is a very important hedge against costs going up more,” he said.

But before Brier encouraged audience members to explore new efficiency options, which SMECO helps provide through energy audits and wind and solar power advice and facilitation, Southern Marylanders mingled at what has become a popular social event.

Pauline and Melvin Cooke of Hughesville have attended every annual SMECO meeting since 1961.

‘‘I hope to win a prize. One of these years we might win,” Pauline Cooke said, referring to the drawings for 50 $35 electric bill credits, two $500 U.S. savings bonds, one $1,000 U.S. savings bond, and one used SMECO vehicle.

La Plata resident Frank Pope began coming to the meetings about three years ago for the opportunity to meet nice people, to vote for new board of directors, and have a hot dog and ice cream.

‘‘Everything’s been going fine. I came to have a nice gathering with folks I know,” the 47-year resident of Southern Maryland said.

‘‘It’s good to hear what’s going on and to see what SMECO’s doing for the public. You see a lot of faces from year to year,” said Koren Brown, a Huntingtown resident whose attends the meeting every year, and skipped the company’s traditional hot dog fry demonstration, showing the power of high-voltage electricity by destroying a frankfurter on a trailer model of power lines.

To these loyal attendees, that’s ‘‘old news” — but many children and newcomers found the demonstration fascinating.

Customers also voted for new board of director members. Only the two St. Mary’s County slots ran opposed, with California’s Joseph Stone Jr., owner of Joe Stone Insurance Agency, an active community member and former SMECO board member, and Loveville’s J. Douglas Frederick, a St. Mary’s County public school employee and former school and SMECO board member, winning the two slots.

Mary Ellen Tancreto of California lost the St. Mary’s County seat. She is owner of OPI Organizing LLC, an active community member and founder of the Patuxent Habitat for Humanity.

Other board members include John H. Bloom, former superintendent of Charles County’s public schools; Nancy W. Zinn, purchasing supervisor for Calvert County’s public schools and former Calvert County Board of Education and Calvert County Planning Commission member; and Daniel W. Dyer, a government consultant and retired appraiser who has also served as SMECO’s board chairman since 2003.