EASTON — Choptank Electric Cooperative has launched a campaign to urge its members to vote in favor of the company’s deregulation — the first step in initiating its controversial plan to connect the rural Eastern Shore to broadband.
Matt Teffeau, Choptank’s manager of government affairs, said Friday, May 22, 500 yard signs that read “vote yes for broadband through member regulation” have been distributed across the Shore.
Teffeau said Choptank has ordered an additional 500 signs because of demand from members, and the signs will be distributed to members “as soon as they come in.”
He also said members already have begun voting and taking action to secure the broadband service.
While high-speed internet undoubtedly is needed across the Shore’s nine counties, the deployment deal isn’t risk free, as has been noted by skeptics who have criticized the plan since its inception because it removes regulatory protections for Choptank’s customers.
Talbot County Chamber of Commerce President Al Silverstein is among those who have voiced distaste for stripping the electric cooperative of its Public Service Commission oversight, which ensures customers are protected against rate hikes and that the company’s services are up to standard.
In a phone interview Wednesday, May 19, Silverstein said while he’s supportive of the rural broadband initiative, he has some doubts concerning the increased control Choptank’s own board of directors would have over the cooperative’s operations.
If Choptank’s members vote in favor of deregulation, its member-elected board of directors would make decisions for the cooperative, with one of the only protective layers being the customers’ ability to vote board members out if they’re unhappy with their conduct.
Sarah Dahl, general counsel for Choptank, during a March 5 hearing before the House of Delegates Economic Matters Committee on House bill 999, or “The Rural Broadband for the Eastern Shore Act of 2020,” compared Choptank’s board members to state lawmakers to argue that the members are protected.
Board members have to face the cooperative’s member owners during Choptank’s “annual member meeting, in the grocery store ... and be willing to stand by decisions they’ve made on behalf of the membership, just like you all do,” Dahl said to the legislators.
“We think there’s a lot of protection built into that model,” she said.
Dahl also said, under provisions in the law that Gov. Larry Hogan ratified May 7, Choptank’s member owners have the ability to vote the cooperative back under PSC regulation if need be.
The vote to undo deregulation would have to be prompted by a petition that receives the signatures of at least 1,000 members.
When asked whether he thought the ability to reverse the member-regulated status was a sufficient protection for Choptank’s members, Silverstein said the customers “are probably going to have to hire a legal team” to ensure that their needs are met through the process of deployment and service.
Despite his doubts, though, Silverstein said he’s rooting for Choptank as it takes on an expensive, decade-long broadband connectivity effort.
Silverstein said he hasn’t heard of any group that has organized in opposition of the broadband plan.
“One way or another we need rural broadband. If (Choptank) is the solution to the problem, that’s great,” he said, adding he’s hopeful the cooperative “will move forward expeditiously and be able to deploy rural broadband in a timely fashion.”
As required by law, Choptank will hold two regional meetings before the vote is finalized Thursday, Aug. 13, during the cooperative’s special meeting, which will immediately follow its scheduled annual meeting.
The first regional meeting will be from 7 p.m. to 8:30 p.m Wednesday, June 10, at Choptank Electric Cooperative’s Denton District Office — 24820 Meeting House Road, Denton, MD 21629.
The second will be 7 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. Thursday, June 11, at Choptank Electric Cooperative’s Regional Service Center — 6520 Walston Switch Road, Salisbury, MD 21804.
The meetings are expected to be held in person, but Teffeau said Choptank is closely monitoring Hogan’s guidelines for public gatherings, which currently are limited to 10 people due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“If limitations on public gatherings are not increased by June 1, we will create Zoom webinars and call-in numbers so that members can interact with leadership about our plans,” he said.
Choptank has stressed the importance of member participation in the vote, pointing out that, as legally required, the cooperative needs 7,000 of its 46,000 eligible voters to cast a vote, with a majority in favor of member regulation, in order for the change to be made.