The MMUA office is moving. While certainly an inconvenience, it also presents an opportunity to go through drawers and files to see what should be kept and what ought to be thrown away.

Rummaging through the office, it is apparent that, in many cases, what seemed crucially important at one time is no longer needed. On the other hand, most of us probably remember something we wish we would have kept.

That something is old doesn’t mean it should be discarded. In fact, sometimes just the opposite is true.

I have in my possession the first MMUA publication, from 1933. How this treasure came into my possession, I do not recall. It may well have been that I made sure to take it the first time I was involved in an office move.

To say that the booklet is foundational to my understanding of MMUA and municipal utilities would be an understatement.

The municipal electric leaders of the time had a sense of mission. And they took the time and trouble to write it down.

Consider the times: the worst economic downturn in the history of the industrialized world—the Great Depression—which followed the stock market crash of 1929 and the collapse of utility holding companies.

Electric service was a proven benefit to society, but many smaller cities and rural areas went without. Other cities were served by private companies, but only poorly.

The municipal franchise was still a serious regulatory tool, and many cities took the franchise unto themselves. Municipal utilities were (and are) formed via referendum, and these votes were the source of much passionate debate. Charges of communism were hurled at municipal proponents.

In Detroit Lakes, a municipalization opponent shot an advocate in the head. The intended victim was saved as the bullet deflected off a metal hat band.

The referendum passed.

To say that the people who created the Minnesota Municipal Utilities Association had a sense of mission would be an understatement. I offer a few of their thoughts for you here:

 If the citizens are wise . . .

The introduction to MMUA’s first publication ends with this: “The members of this organization are unselfishly and wholeheartedly devoted to the progress of municipal ownership.”

I don’t know if organizations had mission statements in the 1930s, but this serves admirably–to the point, memorable, inspirational.

As a counterweight, elsewhere the document notes that the Association was not intended as a “missionary society.” In other words, it would not proselytize a city to municipalize electric service. That, my friends, is a decision that cannot be imposed by others. On the other hand, Association members would testify to the benefits of municipal ownership, and extend the hand of friendship to any who would take the yoke of city electric service upon their own shoulders.

This position is evident in the reprinting of a March 5, 1933 letter from the Worthington city clerk to a man from Staples, who inquired of the wisdom of municipal electric service.

The brief reply contains, at its heart, this statement:

“We do heartily believe that a city owned plant has many advantages over other methods. Perhaps the greatest is that the citizens can control the extent and quality of service to which their money entitles them. And when we consider that while we are enjoying such service our plant is able in addition thereto to pay for various public improvements that otherwise would necessitate a bond issue, our endorsement of the municipally owned plant becomes enthusiastic.

“All we have said may be summarized in this one statement: We believe that a municipally-owned plant is an advisable undertaking if the citizens are wise in their handling of its affairs.”

That statement remains true today.

Does Minnesota Public Power remain true to its founding principles?     

I would say, by and large, it does.

As one piece of evidence I offer the comments of Jon Brooks of Princeton Public Utilities, captured in a story elsewhere in this newsletter:

“It became a lifestyle. It’s my job and my crew’s job to keep the lights on. The people of this community mean a lot to all of us.”

Brooks clearly caught the clear sense of mission the founders of this organization described.

It is something we would do well to keep.     

- Steve Downer