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Protests mount against Duke Energy holding online-only annual shareholders meeting

How does a big corporation facing criticism on a number of fronts try to escape a face-to-face showdown? Make its annual shareholders meeting an online-only event. That, in a nutshell, is what critics say of Duke Energy's recent decision to end its in-person, annual shareholders meeting in its headquarters city of Charlotte, N.C., and replace it with an online meeting scheduled for May 4.

Duke, whose Florida subsidiary has 1.7 million customers in west central Florida, is trying to put a progressive spin on its switch. It says an online annual shareholders meeting will enable broader investor participation for an event that traditionally requires shareholders to travel in person to Charlotte. And, the giant power company adds, it is not the first company to adopt this strategy.

For some vocal opponents, the inability to confront Duke Energy's top executives and its board of directors in person is a loss of investor rights. "Shareholders large and small have voiced frustration with the company since its announcement of the May 4 meeting," the Charlotte Observer reported this week. The paper quotes Jim Warren, executive director of NC WARN, an area nonprofit and Duke shareholder critical of the electric utility's practices. "This is hiding from debate," he argued.

Organizations with broader heft are also weighing in. The Council of Institutional Investors, representing some of the largest U.S. pension funds, urged Duke to add an in-person component to the online meeting. In a letter to Duke's board of directors, the group said a physical meeting reinforces trust and good faith between a company's leaders and its owners, the shareholders.

The California State Teachers' Retirement System, the second-largest public pension fund in the country, this week also sent a letter to Duke expressing concerns over cutting the in-person meeting.

Duke Energy's been roundly criticized on a number of fronts in recent years. In North Carolina, it's been busy defending a massive coal ash spill and subsequent cleanup efforts of a major North Carolina River.

Previous coverage: Trigaux: Florida utilities' efforts to mislead voters on Amendment 1 solar issue are shameful

In the Sunshine State, there's an ongoing controversy involving its Florida subsidiary based in St. Petersburg, Duke Energy Florida, to charge ratepayers for more than $1 billion in charges for a planned but now abandoned nuclear power plant in Levy County. Those plans ultimately were shelved as too expensive, but not before Duke attained a federal license to build a nuclear plant on the site in the future. Duke's financial backing of a "consumer" group that many say was created to mislead Florida consumers over a proposed solar power amendment also remains a sore point.

There's more for some shareholders to complain about. According to the 2017 shareholder proxy, Duke Energy CEO Lynn Good received compensation last year of $13.8 million, a 27.4 percent gain over her 2015 pay package. Yet Duke earned $2.1 billion in 2016, down from $2.8 billion the previous year.

Frank Holleman, senior attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center's office in Chapel Hill, N.C., told the Observer that it is a "sad commentary" on Duke that its senior executive are unwilling "to face the public at a shareholder meeting in their own hometown."