After more than six months of relative dormancy, critics of Crow Wing Power’s management are redoubling their efforts to obtain a membership contact list that could possibly lead to the removal of board directors and executive staff.
The Crow Wing Power Accountability Group is launching a petition to request a comprehensive membership list — which would, members said, hopefully include contact information and a map of the coverage area — from the Crow Wing Power Board of Directors so signatures can be gathered for a potential recall election.
Crow Wing Power serves roughly 38,000 people in mostly rural areas of Crow Wing, Cass and Morrison counties. The group’s calls for signatures represents another chapter in what is becoming a years-long dispute within the public co-op after a Minneapolis Star Tribune article in mid-2018 pointed to possible impropriety by co-op officials.
This piece shed light on a royalty agreement signed Nov. 20, 2008, that stipulates three executives from Crow Wing Power — CEO Bruce Kraemer, former Chief Operating Officer Doug Harren and former Chief Financial Officer Don Nelson — retain royalty interests to a manganese deposit by Emily.
If developed, the deposit has the potential to garner executives millions over the course of the mine's lifespan. Members of the co-op's executive staff, along with board directors, stated members were not notified of the royalty agreement in 2008 or subsequently.
Prior to that, the co-op sold for-profit subsidiary Hunt Technologies in 2006 and used $23 million in profits with the stated intention to develop the mine and give investment returns back to members. Since then, public scrutiny has been directed at $490,000 in bonuses for seven board members, as well as $1.9 million Kraemer was paid from the deal.
Tim Quincer, chairman of the accountability group with more than 100 members, said during a phone interview Monday, Nov. 16, the group’s intention is to gather enough signatures to obtain the membership contact list, then to deliberate on one of three possible options moving forward:
To schedule a special meeting of the Crow Wing Power membership to discuss the issue, which could entail an in-person vote to recall members of the board and/or the executive staff. This would require signatures from 20% of the Crow Wing Power membership. During the co-op’s annual meeting on June 8, 2019, members approved an advisory vote to the board to have Crow Wing Power CEO Bruce Kraemer fired from his position, but the board ultimately disregarded this advisory and voted to retain Kraemer. Two members of the board who have been subject to criticism for their handling of the co-op, Doris Mezzenga for District 1B and Gordon Martin for District 2A, were also reelected by a popular vote from the membership during the meeting.
To call for a recall election of the Crow Wing Power board of directors and/or executive staff, which would likely be done via mail in the same manner as annual elections. This would also entail signatures from 20% of the Crow Wing Power membership.
To place Crow Wing Power under the supervisory authority of the Public Utilities Commission in order to be regulated. Quincer noted similar actions have been taken by other co-ops across the country, notably in the case of Dakota Electric, a power cooperative south of the Twin Cities. This would require 5% of the membership to provide signatures.
Quincer, along with other members of the group, noted they have been pushing Crow Wing Power to release its membership list to the group, as is their right as members of a publicly owned and supervised power cooperative.
Char Kinzer, a spokeswoman for Crow Wing Power, said Wednesday, Nov. 11, the co-op has tried to accommodate the group, but has been reluctant to release sensitive contact information on data privacy grounds.
Kinzer has previously stated the board of directors are awaiting the results of any investigation by the state attorney general’s office, at which time they will determine how Crow Wing Power will address the issue. At the time, Kinzer said the possibility of a forensic audit by a third-party firm — which has been repeatedly proposed by critics of the co-op for more than a year — has already been discussed by the Crow Wing Power Board of Directors. If the situation warrants, she noted, a forensic audit will be initiated.
“We’ve done nothing wrong and have nothing to hide,” Kinzer said at the time. “If the attorney general’s office finds something, the board of directors will address it.”
In turn, group members have criticized this rationale as faulty, stating the co-op is acting out of line and in violation of its own bylaws by restricting a comprehensive list to contact the membership. The group has been pressing the co-op for this membership list for more than a year now, according to Quincer.
“How are we supposed to regulate ourselves if we aren’t told who the members are?” Quincer said. “That's clearly what the state intends — that we're self-regulating, that we can regulate ourselves. We've got concerns and issues. We'd be happy to work with them on that because we certainly don't want to abuse it. Our entire purpose would be to reach out to members and help regulate ourselves.”
Critics have, at various times, called for the removal of Kraemer and other members of the executive staff, and/or the removal of members of the board of directors. There have also been calls for a forensic audit to be conducted on the co-op’s operations and Quincer said it is his understanding Crow Wing Power is still being investigated by the state attorney general’s office, despite interruptions in recent months with COVID-19 and the prosecution of officers charged in the custody death of George Floyd.
A member of the group is newly elected Baxter City Council member John Ward. Ward, a former state lawmaker, said there isn’t political animus behind criticisms of Crow Wing Power officials, but the growing list of outspoken critics is distinctly bipartisan in nature, with high-profile names among Republican and Democrats at the state and federal level. Figures like Ward, a former DFL state representative, Dale Walz, a former Republican state representative, and Rick Nolan, a former Democratic congressman, have all called for a forensic audit and possible criminal investigations into the co-op.
Other prominent co-op members who have expressed fears of malfeasance and criticized Crow Wing Power officials include Breezy Point City Council member Gary Bakken; Stephen Gouze, former CEO and former board chairman of DiaSorin Inc. and Cogenix Medical Corp.; as well as Jon Wefald, the former longtime president of Kansas State University. Current members of the board Bryan McCulloch and, to a lesser extent, Paul Koering, have characterized some statements by Kraemer as false and publicly questioned the co-op’s handling of its for-profit subsidiaries.
Ward said during a Nov. 10 phone interview the membership needs to take steps to get to the bottom of the issue. This would, in all likelihood, entail a forensic audit, which he said is something the accountability group and Crow Wing Power officials should both welcome to vindicate themselves. He also noted the subject of the group’s questioning is not the ground-level office workers and linemen, it’s the executive staff and board of directors who may be abusing their positions of power.
“There have been accusations that board members and some of the executive staff, like the CEO, have been pocketing money that probably should have been given back to the members,” Ward said. “Many in our accountability group have asked questions and not gotten answers.”
Ward is asking Crow Wing Power members to sign the petition by addressing an email to email@example.com. Respondents are instructed to put the petition in the subject line, then to incorporate their name, address, phone number and email address in the text itself. Respondents are also encouraged to share this information on their social media accounts and with any other Crow Wing Power members they know. Quincer noted the group is also asking for financial donations so they can fund a mail campaign to reach the membership more comprehensively.