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American Water Works goes virtual with its annual meeting

The operator of water systems will let shareholders who can't get to South Jersey watch and participate in the proceedings using online tools.

American Water Works Co. Inc. may not sound like it has the pipes to be in the vanguard of technology, but it does.

Last year, the operator of water systems posted a video version of its annual report on its Web site. At the time, I poked a little fun at the dry nature of executives on camera reading the often dull prose that's endemic to nearly all annual reports.

Still, the company I'd expect to have a full video annual report (Comcast Corp.) doesn't -- just 52 seconds of CEO Brian L. Roberts hoping shareholders will find the information on its investor relations site "interesting and useful."

In contrast, American Water must have nearly an hour's worth of video for this year's version of its video annual report. American Water is also using Web tools to allow shareholders to submit questions for the May 7 annual meeting.

And stockholders who can't make the trek to Voorhees for the meeting in person will be able to watch it via a live Web cast and even cast or change a vote during the meeting.

While it's not likely to be more popular than any number of cat videos on YouTube, such online outreach is a big change for shareholders as we begin annual meeting season.

Joining American Water in going virtual in May are TechTeam Global Inc., of Southfield, Mich., and Winland Electronics Inc., of Mankato, Minn.

What's great is that by employing these interactive Web tools, these companies are making it easier than ever for shareholders to participate in corporate governance. However, one look at what's on the agenda for the American Water annual meeting indicates no one should expect high drama.

For many companies, including American Water, the annual meeting remains merely a required stamp of approval of already chosen board members and the accounting firm for the current fiscal year.

For those who aren't shareholders, the virtual meeting doesn't mean you get to watch all the action. Access is limited to shareholders.

So some things haven't changed. The price of admission to a shareholders meeting remains owning at least one share.