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.”