Dinos, drive-ins and democracy
This summer, PKM Electric Cooperative spun its pandemic precautions into a unique annual meeting engagement.
The lot of the Sky-Vu Drive-In Theatre in Warren, Minn., was brimming with vehicles on July 14. Dozens of families had settled into their seats with popcorn in their laps and Pepsi in their cupholders. But “Jurassic Park” wouldn’t hit the large, wooden screen until the sun dropped in three hours.
This was PKM Electric Cooperative’s showtime.
“If I can have a motion, could somebody honk?” PKM president Tom Woinarowicz’s request passed through the 93.1 airwaves of car radios and was met with one quick honk.
“A second?” Honk, honk.
Through a chuckle, Woinarowicz continued. His “All in favor?” was followed by chorus of beeps, and his “All opposed?” drew silence. “There you go, you guys are listening. This is really going good!” he beamed.
The uncommon business meeting was driven not by the desire for fun, but by the need for democracy. Health guidelines spurred by the COVID-19 pandemic forced PKM to postpone its 80th annual meeting scheduled for April. Cooperative bylaws require an annual meeting of the members every year. These meetings allow every member to have a voice in the election of their district directors for the board, to hear the co-op’s financial standing and to learn about the milestones of the past year.
“We knew we had to reschedule,” said Jeff Rustad, PKM manager of member services. “We talked about the drive-in and how easy it would be to do it here. You can socially distance if you want, and people can stay for a movie. Even if there was no COVID, this would be an awesome place to do it.”
When Rustad’s team received the green light from the PKM board, it was time to plan an entirely new way to celebrate cooperative membership.
“I was thinking, ‘How are we going to make this work?’ And if this works, we could do it every year,” said PKM CEO Mike Schmidt. He added that the co-op had been in a bit of an annual meeting “rut,” with the high school serving as the setting year after year.
For the members of many small rural electric cooperatives, the annual meeting is more than business – it’s a chance to catch up with neighbors from a few farms over and share a meal with co-op leaders. PKM wanted to ensure that sense of engagement and community continued with any new setup.
“Many of these people live so far out in the country that I don’t get to see them on a regular basis,” Schmidt said. “I only see them a few times a year, usually at an event like this.”
At least 50 PKM members were needed at the meeting to establish a quorum. All sorts of Minnesota-plate-clad cars and trucks started rolling down the entry drive just after 6 p.m., a full half-hour before the gates were to open. A quorum wouldn’t be a problem.
“This is just mind-blowing,” Schmidt said as dozens of vehicles streamed past the registration tent, where guests were directed to the parking spaces in front of the big screen. By the time the meeting was called to order around 7:15 p.m., 85 members had registered and around 200 attendees had dished up burgers, beans and potato salad.
After a short welcome, members were told the rules of voting by car – one honk for a motion, two honks to second a motion and a honk to voice approval or opposition. The president and CEO shared PKM’s focus on working safely, maintaining system reliability and using sound financial management.
Woinarowicz took a moment to recognize the years of service of Jeff Folland, a longtime co-op director who had to step down as a board member due to illness. The meeting’s peak came as three nominated director candidates (Steve Goodwin, C.J. Peterson and Mike Beaudry) stood before the members and were honked into their new terms.
With the meeting’s adjournment, Schmidt thanked the PKM staff for its creativity and planning. “We hope you find the meeting to your liking, and we hope you’ll stay for the movie,” he told the members.
Lemonade out of lemons
Certain industries have experienced a reemergence during a time of social distancing, such as food delivery services, puzzle companies and, of course, drive-in movie theaters. Sky-Vu owner Steve Novak says the drive-in has seen a lot of new business as people try to find ways to connect safely. He’s taken inquiries to host graduations, weddings and even funerals.
“Now we have PKM out here for their annual meeting,” he said. “Just a lot more opportunities to come out to the drive-in.”
The new annual meeting setting sparked interest in people who may not have otherwise marked it on the calendar. Twenty-five-year-old Quentin Pankratz and his sister, Karron, said they remember attending PKM annual meetings as kids, but never really had an urge to return until this year.
“We love the drive-in, even though it’s an hour away. So we were probably more interested because it was at the drive-in,” Quentin said.
Although Shane Dagoberg was born and raised in PKM territory, this was his first annual meeting, with his youngsters Kallie, 7, and Grady, 8, by his side. “It gets people together. And this incorporates what social distancing is about,” he said, noting – with a nod to Grady – that the film choice was a bonus. “This one likes dinosaurs.”
Many cooperatives have moved their annual meetings later in the year, hoping time will diminish COVID-19 concerns. Others have pushed forward, creating virtual meeting experiences to carry out cooperative business.
Cass County Electric Cooperative (CCEC) developed an online portal for its Aug. 25 virtual meeting, complete with prerecorded addresses from leadership and director candidates, a question submission form and more. President and CEO Marshal Albright said the online format allowed the co-op to establish alternative voting methods.
“The change in voting will provide an opportunity for more members to vote,” he explained. At previous CCEC annual meetings, 250-300 members would vote for directors. “The new format using absentee and online voting provides the opportunity for over 44,000 members to vote.”
Red River Valley Co-op Power also went virtual this year, using YouTube Live to stream its Aug. 5 annual meeting. CEO Rich Whitcomb says the pandemic has forced the co-op to think differently when dealing with adversity.
“I was glad that our bylaws gave us some flexibility to roll with events outside our control,” he said. “Flexibility is a good thing during uncertain times, and we are certainly showing flexibility to our membership.”
Whether by movie screen or computer screen, co-op leaders are making sure the pillars of the cooperative – democratic member control, transparency, community – remain strong, even when it feels like the world is weakened.
“It’s important to bring PKM members together, just to ensure our electrical system continues,” PKM member Jerome Vanek said from the seat of his car. “All the pandemic has done here is give us an excuse to do something unique.”
Main image: A sky view of Sky-Vu Drive-In Theatre in Warren, Minn., as PKM Electric prepares to call its annual business meeting to order on July 14. (Minnkota/Michael Hoeft)