Vancity election recommendations generate controversy

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      Wendy Holm is busy with her consultancy work these days. An agrologist, Holm advises grassroots organizations on assessing impacts of proposed projects like the Site C dam in northeastern B.C.

      A former director of the $17-billion Vancouver City Savings Credit Union, popularly known as Vancity, she isn’t running for a seat on the cooperative’s board this time around. With members voting for three positions until April 26, she explained why her name isn’t on the ballot.

      “Democracy has suffered in the way the elections are being managed,” Holm told the Georgia Straight in a phone interview.

      In 2011, the Vancity board adopted the practice of endorsing some candidates. Although Holm agrees that the board needs to vet candidates to “make sure that there are no scoundrels running”, she said that members of the credit union shouldn’t be influenced by the board in their choices.

      “When the board assigns stars to candidates and tells the members who to vote for, the election really isn’t a democratic one,” Holm said.

      Board member Patrice Pratt headed the nominations-and-election committee that recommended five of the 11 candidates who were eventually backed by the board this year. She defended the practice as “very democratic”. According to the former Vancity chair, it’s “built on cooperative values”.

      “This is the third year that we have done things differently, and that’s built on member feedback,” Pratt told the Straight in a phone interview. “A majority of our members have spoken to us about the process, and so we believe it is totally democratic.”

      Vancity member Mark Latham disagrees. He is the founder of VoterMedia.org, a project that seeks to enhance voters’ access to information and increase the accountability of leaders in government, corporations, unions, and nonprofits.

      In his 2012 paper “We Want Our Co-ops Back”, Latham noted that as cooperatives grow, they tend to become “less democratic” and their “power structure can become an oligarchy”. He also suggested that the “politics” of the 2009 Vancity board elections may explain why the credit union’s board “changed the election rules in ways that give them more power to influence the outcome”.

      Latham recalled that in 2009, when slates were allowed, the so-called Action Team ran three candidates. Vancity independent director Bob Williams supported three non–Action Team candidates, and two of these—Holm and Lisa Barrett—got elected. Only one candidate, Jan O’Brien, was elected from the Action Team slate, and the group’s majority control of the board dropped to five out of the nine seats. Vancity holds annual elections for three seats on the board, and members serve three-year terms.

      In 2012, incumbents Holm and Barrett ran for another term, but the board did not endorse them. Both lost.

      Unlike Holm, Barrett is running in this year’s election. According to the former Bowen Island mayor, she has “heard from a lot of members” that they don’t like the board’s practice of endorsing candidates. “I’m running in the hopes of changing this process to a more democratic process,” Barrett told the Straight in a phone interview.

      In this month’s election, Williams, an incumbent, is one of the five endorsed candidates vying for three seats on the board. The other four are Vancity chair Virginia Weiler, incumbent board director Allen Garr, and nonincumbents Leopoldo Valdes and James Wright.

      “The [nominations and election] committee has been reconsidering different aspects of the rules, so it’s gradually improving,” Williams noted in a phone interview.

      The candidates who were not endorsed by the board are Barrett, Nao Fernando, William Brooks, Michael DuBelko, Gil Yaron, and Keith Horne.

      Pratt says she is familiar with “We Want Our Co-ops Back”, in which Latham wrote that “subjective judgments involved in choosing candidates that are ‘deemed to best meet the Board’s needs at this time’ may mask self-serving elimination of competitors who might better serve the interests of co-op members”.

      “Mr. Latham is one member, but a majority of our members said they didn’t like the way the election was happening previously,” Pratt said.

      Pratt emphasized that any of Vancity’s almost 500,000 members can run for the board and must go through a “really formal, rigorous assessment”. She added that recommendations are made “based on the skills” the board has determined are needed by the credit union’s leadership.

      “But in the end,” Pratt said, “our members choose.”

      Comments

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      20 Comments

      VanCity Member

      Apr 11, 2013 at 7:10am

      Personally, I don't like the "endorsements". I view it as interference in the democratic process by the board of VanCity. It is interesting to note that this "board endorsement" action seems to have co-incided with a significant reduction in the amount of information on each candidate in the election mail-out material.

      Since this activity began, I have never once voted for an "endorsed" candidate, as these endorsements always seem to be for existing board members. This seems transparently self-serving of the board.

      C'est la vie!

      Paul Johnston

      Apr 11, 2013 at 9:48am

      It is a completely unacceptable practice.

      Tami Starlight

      Apr 11, 2013 at 10:59am

      I truly feel that VanCity has become lost in all its financial popularity.

      It is now one of the "players" in gentrifying the downtown eastside of Vancouver.

      I feel it is the least accountable and grassroots than it ever has been and has become like the big colonial banks in Canada.

      Another Vancity Member

      Apr 11, 2013 at 11:00am

      First, they prompt you to vote when you log in to online banking. So you click through and get to a voting page. Not only do they "recommend" certain candidates, but they also list these candidates first. And so the average member, in a hurry to do a transaction, sees the first few candidates, sees that they're recommended, and clicks on their names so they can get on their way. It's weird. It feels blatantly corrupt. I had to take a shower afterwards.

      Lee L.

      Apr 11, 2013 at 11:15am

      I view this as akin to the 'environmental' sponsorships that VanCity engages in. I only want them to run a coop credit union, not promote a political point of view or a doctrine.

      It seems that the board is unwilling to be guided by a democratic process.

      Coach Dobbs

      Apr 11, 2013 at 11:29am

      Credit Unions now exist in name only. They are all much to large and are operated by bankers. Other than from philosophical perspective benefits to the members differ little from the banks. Fees, interest rates etc. are largely the same, in fact sometimes banks offer greater benefits. It is now nearly impossible to to create a credit union on the basis of the credit union philosphy ie: operated directly by and for the benefit of members. We now have these giants and administrations paying themselves huge wages and bonuses,and of course doing their best to keep it away from the prying eyes of the membership.

      RUK

      Apr 11, 2013 at 12:37pm

      Vancity has given great customer service, a very fair rate of lending, an excellent and responsive online interface, and has given money to things that I like or at least have no problem with, e.g. biodiesel at UBC.

      As for gentrification, if I can be said to be against it at all, it would be against displacing people without warning or planning to deal with the fallout. Investing in local business in a markedly depressed and seedy part of town is not nearly the blow to the DTES that was, say, the closing of Riverview.

      NullVan

      Apr 11, 2013 at 2:08pm

      I am a Vancity member with mixing feelings about the institution. I like that the board is forthcoming about who they prefer to see elected. If VanCity members are so pressed for time and/or dense that they automatically vote for board recommended candidates, then I don't have much faith in their voting choices regardless of how the vote is structured.

      vancouver

      Apr 11, 2013 at 2:44pm

      Really...a few candidates who have lost over the past few years get to blame the process. I want my credit union to have competent board members who know how to be effective on a board- it looks like Vancity's board is trying to do the same...kudo's for them. To say the process is undemocratic is a red herring- no one is being forced to vote for anyone....give the members some credit.

      Fiona

      Apr 11, 2013 at 9:07pm

      The idea of recommendations encourages a "lazy" approach to voting.
      :here, we know you are super busy and don't really have time for this...and we'd like to have the people we like best around us who won't criticize policy...so vote for these guys cause we recommend them. -... and you can be on your way. easy.
      ...
      It's ridiculous. If you are going to vote, learn about the candidates and vote for the best in your estimation, not 'their' estimation...