Vancity board of directors elections criticized for being undemocratic

As a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford during the 1960s, Wilson Parasiuk studied the rise of totalitarian governments across the world.

It’s partly because of his academic background that the former Manitoba NDP MLA and cabinet minister feels so outraged at how elections are being conducted for the board of directors of the $14.5-billion Vancouver City Savings Credit Union.

For the now long-time Vancouver resident, who also headed a B.C. Crown corporation under an NDP government during the 1990s, the Vancity board is acting undemocratically. He’s appalled by its practice of coming up with a list of recommended candidates for the 417,211 member-owners of the credit union to vote for.

“That’s a rigged election as far as I can tell,” Parasiuk told the Georgia Straight in a phone interview. “When I was at university in England, I studied how the communists, when they took over countries like Czechoslovakia and Hungary after the war, how they moved from being young democracies into totalitarian regimes. And they established lists like this. They didn’t abolish elections. They just rigged them.”

Vancity members are voting until April 27 for candidates who will fill three seats on the nine-member board.

It’s the second year that the board, through a nominations and election committee, has identified candidates it favours.

Vancity board chair Virginia Weiler explained that a survey showed members support this recommendation system, which replaced the previous setup of having slates competing in elections.

“Seventy-six percent were satisfied with the changes,” Weiler told the Straight in a phone interview. “It was an overwhelming response. It was the highest response to a member survey that we had in 10 years. And in fact, we had an 18-percent increase in the number of ballots cast last year after we made the changes.”

While Parasiuk is not saying the Vancity board members are communists, he’s “really disturbed when people start tampering with democratic elections within a credit union”.

“Imagine if Stephen Harper came along,” Parasiuk went on, “and said, ‘You know what, in the next election, we’re not going to have parties. We’re just going to have a slate of names and the names that I like will be at the top of the list.’ Well, imagine people here on this board would be going berserk, saying this is undemocratic. Well I’m saying that the way this is happening, this is very undemocratic. This is a slippery slope. It’s very dangerous.”

With guidelines set by the board, Vancity’s nominations and elections committee, headed by newspaper columnist Allen Garr, recommended five candidates for the three director positions.

The list does not include two incumbent directors seeking new terms: Wendy Holm and Lisa Barrett.

But the list has incumbent director and board vice-chair Jan O’Brien. To many, O’Brien is known as the provincial secretary of the B.C. NDP and the wife of Vision Vancouver councillor Geoff Meggs.

Garr’s committee includes Vancity director Patrice Pratt, a former president of the B.C. NDP, and four non–board members.

O’Brien, Garr, Pratt, and Weiler used to belong to the Action Team slate that ran in previous Vancity elections.

Although Holm and Barrett aren’t happy, they separately told the Straight by phone that they can’t talk much about their nonrecommendations because they could be disqualified.

Holm, who is in her fourth term on the board, is a UBC agrologist. Barrett is a second-termer, and a former mayor of Bowen Island. They have always run as independent candidates.

Parasiuk has known Holm since the 1990s, when he was serving as the founding president of Vancity Enterprises, a real-estate-development subsidiary of the credit union.

Aside from O’Brien, the board is recommending Teresa Conway, Michael DuBelko, Greg McDade, and James Wright.

Wright, the general director of the Vancouver Opera, told the Straight by phone that he appreciates the endorsement by the Garr committee.

Garr didn’t return the Straight’s call before deadline.

Weiler explained how the candidates were evaluated. “We looked at values, alignment, their attributes, their skills, and the experience and the leadership track record,” she said. “And we asked the nominations and election committee to interview and assess all of the candidates that put their names forward.”

Ultimately, according to Weiler, it’s up to the members to make their choices.

Comments (31) Add New Comment
Paul Johnston
I was appalled when I opened my ballot and saw the way the list of candidates had been manipulated. It made me consider NOT voting for any of the "recommended" candidates, although I favour two on that list. What were these people thinking ?
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Doreen Braverman, ARCA Chair
When I was Chair of Vancity's Nominations Committee, the committee's role was to check nominated candidates for eligibility and to draw lots for position in the election bulletin. I saw the role of the committee to encourage qualified candidates, depending on the composition of the board. It wasn't to be because the Action Slate assumed that role. I do not support the committee recommending candidates. Let the members decide.
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vancity member
Thanks for writing this timely article. I hope others will eschew the board's oligarchic self-appointment, do their own research and vote for Barrett and Holm.
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C Williams
I am a member of BOTH Vancity and Coast Capital Savings Credit Union. I personally don't think it is right that you are only focusing on Vancity in this article, when Coast Capital Savings does the EXACT same thing in recommending board members. Both Credit Unions are going through board elections and I have to admit I was shocked when I opened my ballots and saw that both had a long list of recommended candidates. HOWEVER these are JUST recommendations that doesn't mean that you HAVE to vote for the recommended candidates. As an owner of a credit union YOU have a voice, YOU make the decision as to who goes on the board. Recommendations are just that recommendations. If you are going to slam one credit union get your, do your research and slam them all as they ALL do the same thing!
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Dianne
I too was in a state of shock, horror and outrage when I read the contents of my voting package.

Elections are the way members vote and we do not need a selection committee from the board to tell us who WE the members think are qualified.

A sad and shameful day for VanCity indeed. One might even go so far as to ask "where's the democratic election for the board of directors?" Gone the way of the dinosaur?

Maybe Harper will have to call in the troups..... to save democracy?
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Vancity member
Interesting how the article reinforces the criticism levelled against Vancity by only naming the recommended candidates and incumbents, while not naming any of the other candidates! For the record, the other candidates are Dhorea Kencayd, Dallas Kachan, Mitch Cramp, Darren Jukes, Gil Yaron, Michael Burke and Greg Banwell.

While I completely agree with the general criticism articulated in the article, and the comments that the author should extend his critique to other credit unions, it should be noted that this is getting close to the way board nominees are put forward for election with respect to public corporations. In that instance, the CEO essentially handpicks candidates that are put to the shareholders as a slate for rubber stamp approval. Options are rarely given to shareholders.
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Jacob
The election is entirely democratic. If the nomination process is anything like other credit unions, I'd imagine that Vancity interviewed the candidates, looked at its own skill matrix and determined which of the nominees are what Vancity and its board needs now. It is good corporate governance. Members should be pleased to have such a hands-on board.
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Roger McNeill
Mountain Equipment Coop went through a candidate endorsement phase a number of years ago but then dropped endorsement and went back to purely democratic elections after seeing the bias that resulted. Vancity should do the same before nepotism becomes too deeply entrenched.
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Want my Credit Union Back
The Chair, Virgiinia Wieler, rivals Peter MacKay for spin and dissembling. I was at last year's Vancity AGM and a vast majority of speakers were totally opposed to this new nomination trick. There were more who wanted to speak against it but comments were cut off. Nobody I know EVER asked to be told who to vote for!
The only reason the number of votes may have increased is because online voting was finally introduced last year, an essential point that Ms Wieler conveniently omits.
Additionally, it should be known that voter turnout is around 5% of membership. An 18% increase in 5% barely registers as a percentage point. I hope the Chair isn't playing with any other numbers at the credit union!

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Doug Park
Jacob writes, "I'd imagine that Vancity interviewed the candidates, looked at its own skill matrix and determined..."

Ah, but who is "Vancity?" You say "Vancity" did this and "Vancity" did that, but what you mean is, "An unelected group representing a faction of the current Board, Vision Vancouver, and the right wing of the provincial NDP." Myself, I would tend to identify Vancity as its members.

I am a member of Coast Capital, and made sure to vote for the NON-recommended candidate specifically because I object to the recommendations existing. Well, and he seemed a decent and qualified candidate. It occurs to me now maybe I should have NOT voted for any of the recommended ones, in order to make the outsider even stronger relatively.

Of course, it could be worse. Years ago I was a member of REI (like MEC, only in the states) and the only way you could run for the board was to be nominated by the current board. There were - for example - seven positions available, seven candidates nominated, and no write-ins allowed on the last ballot I saw. As noted before, essentially this is the Albanian/Maoist approach.

(p.s. As described in various articles before, there is the strong impression that Jan O'Brien's fellow NDP top brass seem to be likewise doing their best to tilt the Vancouver Fairview nomination in the direction of her husband Meggs. Happily, all they have been able to do so far is keep overruling the riding executive's nomination dates, delaying the meeting for about a year in order to make it as convenient as possible for Meggs, if he decides to formally throw his hat in at all that is. Fortunately it seems they cannot actually just declare him the preferred candidate openly, as at Vancity. So, there will be at least the opportunity for an open vote whenever it is finally allowed, as with Gabriel Yiu beating the Vision-approved candidate George Chow in Vancouver Fraserview.)
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Onni Milne
I am a member of the G&F Credit Union. In G&F and former credit unions I have been a member of, I have NEVER seen recommendations from the nominations committee as to who to vote for in Board elections. I read the bios for the candidates, decide who I believe will best represent the credit union as a director and vote for that person. That's what an election looks like.
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Vancity member 2
I think you've been conned or spun. The article ignores the fact that Wendy Holm and Lisa Barrett were on the Board when this new rule was put in place, and Wilson Parasiuk was one of their supporters. The rule has been in for two years and not a peep before. Now that they've been rejected (perhaps for good reason), they pretend to oppose it. Sour grapes, I think. If you don't like the rule (and I don't), then vote against them.

Don't punish the recommended or other candidates, who may have the better skills. In the end, its still an open vote.
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P.J. Irving
Recommended candidates are usually mere proletariat for the current hegemony and/or struggle for dominance.Woo-hoo! The Harper strategy of stacking the board(senate/judiciary) prevails at VanCity in what was once consider the last true free spirited financial enterprise. How did this happen? How can we rag on about democracy disappearing in Canadian politics when our very own "progressive" enterprises have buried it? Do we not trust the people to decide any thing? Recommendations carry a lot of weight and it is rubbish to say that this will not influence the outcome. Why else did they do it? Re-establish democracy or stop calling yourselves a member-driven organisation.
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Wendy Holm
I was a Vancity director from 1990-1996 and was re-elected in 2008. I have run as an independent candidate in five elections.

In the 90's, there was a strong and positive relationship between myself and the Action Slate; we stayed in touch with (remember Working Dollars?) and listened to members, maintained a respectful but board-led relationship with senior management and valued our branches and member/staff as our roots in the community.

In ’96 I lost to Jack Allard by a handful of votes. I came back in 2008 at the request of Bob Williams, who came back as an independent to get traction for the Sacco Report (arts). Elected to a one year term (there’d been a resignation), I ran again and was re-elected in 2009, topping the polls by a dramatic margin – no ego; humility really: the members wanted me to go and do specific work at the governance table. There was resonance in what I stood for and what members valued.

This is unquestionably a very frustrating election. Never before have I faced such restrictions on what candidates can and cannot say. (This is fact, not criticism; I sat on the Board that created the Election Guidelines and as such I am not permitted to criticize them nor tell you how I voted.) Nor am I permitted to say what priorities I have tried to move forward on behalf of members during my past term nor what I will support if re-elected.

In an election with starred candidates (fact: identified by 4 members and 2 Directors on Nominations and Election Committee; mandated by the Board), a ruling by that same committee (that Guideline #9 which prohibits candidates from claiming the endorsement of groups also applies to individuals) prevents me from telling you which 13 members nominated me and why (I appealed this).

Standing before members as "not recommended" will make it very difficult to be re-elected; starred candidates normally receive the overwhelming majority of votes. It's effective. This was borne out by last year's election. Starred candidates averaged 6 times the votes of their unstarred running-mates.

But wait... We ARE a cooperative... Sure many have been too busy in past elections to vote - the 5% who do seemed to be doing a good job…. But this year, maybe, just maybe, members will return more than two independent incumbents; maybe they will return engagement and democracy...

Think of it as a Tinkerbelle challenge: remember clap if you believe in fairies? Vote if you believe in cooperatives. It’s the right think to do…

Imagine....

wendyholm.ca
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Rick in Richmond
VanCity Board member # 2 writes: "The article ignores the fact that Wendy Holm and Lisa Barrett were on the Board when this new rule was put in place, and Wilson Parasiuk was one of their supporters."

And how did Holm and Barrett VOTE on that motion?

Apparently they voted AGAINST it. But under the new guided democracy that prevails at Vancity, they are NOT allowed to say how they voted.

Vancity has taken a very bad turn away from democracy.
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Norman Smith
I am fed up with the gerrymandering of Vancity elections. First it was "slates", which were actually mini-political parties, now it's "recommendations". This is really a cynical attempt to manipulate the outcome of an election, then rationalize that after all, it was really good for you. What are they ( the current board) afraid of? That somone "not like us" might get elected? After 30+ years I am seriously thinking of leaving Vancity. With the banks, at l;east you know what you are getting.
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Warren Bell
Proposing slates is so old-fashioned -- and so corporate!

This is the 21st century, not the 19th, when the "high-class" people, who were "in the know", told the hoi-poloi who to vote for.

I've been in lots of organizations, mostly NGO's. The only rationale for proposing a list of candidates is the fear that their aren't enough volunteers willing to stand -- clearly the opposite of Vancity's problem.

In today's evolving planetary culture, believing one has pre-figured precisely what kind of knowledge and skills will be needed for future decision-making is naive.

I say, do what the majority of "civil society" organizations do: publish the bios of all the candidates (more info, rather than less, never hurts) and let the democratic chips fall where they may. The culture of Vancity needs to be embedded in the society in which it lives, not in some vision in the minds of the current directorship.
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Wayne L.Richards
This is a very bad situation.

But what is even worse is that candidates cannot speak out about it (and probably other things too) for fear of being disqualified.

Without freedom of speech there is no free election.
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Lisa Barrett
While Wayne L.Richards is correct about the consequences of speaking out, as a current Vancity Director (up for re-election) I feel the importance of maintaining the credibility and integrity of our credit union is essential if we want to do the good work we're saying we want to do for our members and their communities.

Although working under restrictions imposed by the current election rules, as an active Vancity Director you can be sure that I freely and consistently raise issues of our collective interest at the Board table. I take very seriously both my fiduciary and ethical duties to the Credit Union and its owners, the membership.

There are a couple of anonymous comments here that I would like to correct:

'Vancity member 2' has asserted that Wilson Parasiuk was a supporter of mine. This is news to me. I don't know Mr. Parasiuk but I found the issues he's raising in this article to be well expressed. Again, I'm constrained from commenting any further on this point.

'Jacob' talks about 'good *corporate* governance'. Vancity Credit Union is a *co-operative* financial institute. I expect good *co-operative* governance practices would be the standard applied to elections and throughout the organization.

My facebook page is here for more accurate info (insofar as we're allowed to post): https://www.facebook.com/ReElectLisaBarrettToVancityBoardOfDirectors
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fightthepower
totally agree-- I purposely voted for those not on the "recommended" list- I hope this backfires on them. The board stacking the deck this way seems to go against their co operative values.
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