The headquarters of Dakota Energy in Huron. (John Hult/South Dakota Searchlight)
Member-owners of a small electric distribution cooperative in eastern South Dakota have elected three new board members after a nearly three-year legal saga that saw the former leadership attempt to break off its contract with a Madison-based power supplier.
It’s the second board election in as many years in which Dakota Energy’s member-owners opted to back candidates who opposed the move to separate from East River Electric Cooperative.
Dakota Energy has a contract to buy power from East River until 2075. Lengthy contracts are typical for nonprofit electric cooperatives, which rely on the stability of decades-long commitments from partners to finance large-scale infrastructure projects.
Starting around 2019, board members for Dakota Energy began to work with co-op management on a plan to break the co-op’s long-term contract with East River in favor of a Colorado-based company called Guzman Energy. The dispute landed first in state court, then federal court, with Dakota Energy leadership demanding that East River produce a contract buyout number. Dakota Energy later sued several member-owners for attempting to force a vote on the contract.
Dakota Energy lost its case in federal court, then later lost its appeal to the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals. The ruling set a precedent for co-ops with similar contract language at a time when some co-ops around the country have begun to look for ways to bolster their renewable energy portfolios, save money for members with market-priced power, or both.
Last year, Dakota Energy member-owners ousted three incumbents in favor of board members opposed to the Guzman talks. They pointed to concerns about transparency from management over the talks, among other issues.
On Tuesday, voters again chose candidates who’d earned support from opponents of the Guzman deal, including some who had been sued by Dakota Energy.
Chase Binger, the current board president, was not up for reelection in a slate with just one incumbent: Steve Peterson.
Co-op members elected Brian Bonebright over Paula Kleinsasser, 390-173; Brian Baum over Jim Keeter 365-196; and Doug Schaefers over Peterson, 390-167.
Bonebright told South Dakota Searchlight on Monday that he respects the other candidates, but hoped whomever won would push for openness with members on any potential changes in the co-op’s direction.
“The members have a right to know what’s going on,” Bonebright said.
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