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NH Electric Co-op resignations spotlight alleged culture of sexism and bullying

Madeline McElaney delivers her resignation at a June 25, 2024 board meeting of the New Hampshire Electric Cooperative.
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Madeline McElaney, bottom left, delivers her resignation at a June 25, 2024 board meeting of the New Hampshire Electric Cooperative.

New Hampshire’s consumer advocate is calling for regulators to investigate the New Hampshire Electric Cooperative after two women who previously led the board of directors resigned Tuesday.

Sharon Davis, the former chair of the co-op’s board of directors and Madeline McElaney, the former vice chair, had both served multiple terms on the board. Davis was first elected in 2003 and had served since then aside from a break in 2018. McElaney had served since 2019.

In the cooperative’s annual meeting held earlier this month, McElaney described an environment of sexism and bullying within the organization. She noted that she, Davis, and Chief Executive Officer Alyssa Clemsen Roberts were the cooperative’s first female leadership team.

“It has not been an easy road. In fact, I believe there’s a double standard for female leaders at NHEC,” she said. “We’re questioned, interrupted, dismissed more easily than our male counterparts. This behavior is wrong and at odds with our values and our cooperative principles.”

At Tuesday’s board meeting, McElaney read a letter announcing her and Davis’s resignations, saying behavior she observed in the days following the annual meeting led them to leave entirely.

“The board has made decisions that we fundamentally disagree with and has operated contrary to good governance principles,” she said. “We feel strongly that this board has failed to do its own job and has prevented management from doing theirs, and that this jeopardizes the cooperative and its future stability and viability.”

McElaney also said a toxic and hostile working environment was causing harm to the cooperative.

“We have tried repeatedly to protect the reputation of the cooperative by dealing with this quietly, but at this juncture, we feel the risk of staying silent outweighs the risk of reputational harm,” she said. “It has become evident that we have no means to influence or rectify the situation.”

At Tuesday’s board meeting, newly-elected board chair William Darcy said the board and cooperative staff must “more consistently be respectful in our language,” but asked those present not to attribute motives to other people.

“It is unhelpful to board harmony and productiveness to attribute those differences publicly or in confidential settings to any personal characteristics such as gender, age, or other unrelated factors,” he said.

During a section of the meeting reserved for cooperative members’ comments, two members addressed the board, saying they were disappointed in the behavior they’d seen.

Sharon Yeaton said she was a former cooperative employee and described the board dynamic as “chaos,” saying it had caused her to retire early.

“This has been going on for a long time,” Yeaton said. “You guys have had years to work on your behavior, and you haven’t.”

In an emailed statement, Darcy said the cooperative’s board of directors would hold a special meeting to consider McElaney’s allegations of gender discrimination.

“The Board of Directors is treating these allegations with the utmost seriousness; we have zero tolerance for misconduct, and the alleged misconduct is counter to our values and strict code of conduct,” he said.

In his letter to state regulators, Don Kreis, the state’s consumer advocate, said the resignations, alleged sexism and bullying “may threaten the ability of the Co-op to provide default energy service in an affordable and stable manner.”

Kreis also expressed concerns about policy positions taken by board chair William Darcy on how the utility should purchase power for customers.

“I'm worried that Mr. Darcy doesn't understand the difference between running a utility and governing a utility,” Kreis said in a phone interview. “The day to day operation of the utility, including decisions about power purchases – that's really what a utility hires expert employees to take care of.”

In his chairman’s report, Darcy said he’d been studying how New Hampshire’s Public Utilities Commission has set policy related to default electricity rates and expressed support for adopting those policies.

Later in the meeting, Darcy asked cooperative staff to send any contracts for energy for longer than six months to the board for review. He also expressed interest in setting policy around how much the cooperative should rely on “spot” purchases, or purchases of power in real time from the region’s wholesale market, rather than signing long-term contracts for power in advance.

Those kinds of purchases can save money, Kreis acknowledged, but can also cause costs to spike dramatically if a storm or cold snap causes some electric suppliers to fail. New Hampshire regulators have asked other utilities in the state to rely more on spot purchasing to buy power for customers.

The cooperative is not subject to the same regulations at the Public Utilities Commission, instead being run by its members, who are made up of customers.

Kreis said the alleged conduct from board members was a “grievous threat” to electricity consumers because of the cooperative’s reliance on customer participation through board elections.

“The premise here is that this utility doesn’t require regulatory oversight because it is governed by the same people who depend on it,” he said. “If duly elected members of the board are feeling so uncomfortable and so mistreated because of sexism and bullying that they literally quit, then that really undermines the whole paradigm.”

Mara Hoplamazian reports on climate change, energy, and the environment for NHPR.
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