A faction of Mountain Equipment Co-op members is rallying against a move to reform the leadership-election rules of the outdoor retail chain, founded in Vancouver 40 years ago.
The debate centres on an effort by the MEC board of directors to secure more control over selecting which candidates can stand for election to the organization’s nine-member board.
A special resolution introduced by the board, and up for a vote by MEC members until the end of March, seeks to update the candidate-nomination process.
The change would enable a board committee to determine the criteria for suitable board directors, select the list of official candidates, and reject undesirable nominees. MEC members would still elect the directors.
Opponents of the special resolution argue the new rules would diminish the democratic role of MEC’s millions of member-owners—mostly customers of the retailer in Canada.
Critics also fear the change could limit the ballot options, stifle diverse representation, and potentially open the door to directors filling the board with people with shared views.
More than 260 people have added their names to an online open letter opposed to the board’s special resolution. They include Vancouver lawyer David Eby, former Senate page Brigette DePape, and Toronto activist Judy Rebick.
“It doesn't set a good example for how a member-owned co-op should be run. And it doesn't allow the people who are best able to decide who they would like to be represented by to choose their own representatives,” reads the letter, posted online last week.
“Instead, it replaces the desires of members with the desires of the board, and it downgrades members from active participants in the co-op to mere consumers of its products.”
For their part, MEC officials argue the existing candidate-nomination rules are behind the times for a $265-million-a-year business with around 1,500 employees.
They argue the new rules are intended to help ensure members can vote for a list of well-qualified board candidates.
“With a balanced ballot before them, members will decide which candidates are the most qualified to lead MEC,” reads a document about the special resolution on the MEC website.
“MEC will benefit from strong Board leadership that is responsive to members’ diverse interests and in keeping with the size and scope of the business at hand,” it reads.
MEC members can vote on the special resolution by phone and online until March 29 as part of annual board elections.
If approved, the new rules would come into effect for the elections in 2013.
Mark Latham, a long-time MEC member from Vancouver, is opposed to the special resolution. He said the proposal would take too much power away from the members.
“They haven’t been doing this, but I wouldn’t mind if the board gave its opinion and said, ‘We think these five candidates are great and these other five are terrible.’ That’s fine by me. But we should be able to vote for the terrible ones if we want, if we think they’re not terrible,” Latham told the Straight by phone.
MEC spokesperson Tim Southam said the board concluded the existing nominations process does not address the leadership needs of such a large and complex business.
“I think there’s a growing recognition among co-operatives, just as there is among corporations, that governance processes…need to be bolstered,” Southam told the Straight by phone.
“A lot of this attention has come to light since 2008 and the meltdown in the global economy. But co-ops, like other organizations, have been called upon to improve their governance practices such that they are placing responsibility with boards to ensure that they are in fact attracting qualified people to lead these organizations,” he said.
Founded in Vancouver in 1971, MEC has 15 stores across Canada and 3.6 million members who are customers and part-owners of the organization.