Sunday, April 15, 2012

@Vancity credit union election: Who I plan to vote for & why


I plan to vote for LISA BARRETT, GIL YARON and WENDY HOLM.

My main reason: strengthening the connection between our board and us Vancity members. I am concerned that our system of election rules shifts power from us members to whatever group currently dominates on the board. We should change those rules to make the board more accountable to members. I think Lisa, Gil and Wendy are the most likely to help us do that, as well as being highly qualified candidates.

[BTW I hope to learn more in the next week or so, and may yet change my voting plans & update this post.]

How to cast your vote:

Each member should have received a ballot and info leaflet by mail. If you didn't get one, I suggest calling the Election line at (604) 877-7595. There's more info on the Vancity election web page.

You can vote for one, two, or three candidates maximum.

To vote by mail: Mark your paper ballot and mail it (no postage required) in time to reach its address (Consumerscan in Vancouver) by 5pm Friday April 27.

To vote online: Go to the Vancity election web page and click on Log in now to vote (on the right). Deadline for online votes: 4pm Friday April 27. (Only personal account members can vote online, not business account members.)

To vote in person: You can vote at these branches from April 13 through April 21.

How I evaluated the candidates:

(BTW this post is similar to my post last month about the Mountain Equipment Co-op election, where members are likewise facing issues of a weak connection with the board.)

I'm not an expert in evaluating candidates. I'm an expert in designing voter information systems that attract experts in evaluating candidates, to give voters the benefit of expert advice. (My cv: Since Vancity doesn't have such a system in place, I'm sharing my less-than-expert evaluations of candidates.

I appreciate the work done by all Vancity board members, and I thank all the candidates for offering their time and expertise to serve Vancity.

I especially appreciate our board's attention to the important problem of how to get the best possible new directors nominated and elected to the board. Vancity's existing system of election rules is intended to help with this problem. Based on my years of experience with election systems, I think we at Vancity can improve our rules considerably. This is such an important issue that it greatly affects my vote for directors, as explained below.

Many Vancity members likewise think that our election rules are far from ideal. In particular, there is much controversy about the practice of prominently displaying "recommended" candidates' names at the top of the ballot. These board-approved recommendations are generated by a board-selected Nominations and Election Committee (NEC). This year there are 15 candidates competing for 3 board seats. 5 of the candidates are "recommended".

Recent Georgia Straight article on this (with many comments):
Vancity board of directors elections criticized for being undemocratic

Most commenters on the above article think there is something seriously wrong with Vancity's current system with "recommended" candidates. I agree with them. But the way I would advise improving the system is probably different from what those commenters have in mind.

We should have an information-rich election process:

To me, the problem is not that the NEC is recommending candidates. The problem is that those are the only recommendations most voters see.

Recommendations can be very helpful. But no one should have a monopoly on showing recommendations to voters. Of course, the NEC doesn't have a complete monopoly. I'm free to write my recommendations on this blog, and Vancity voters are free to read them. However, the advantage of printing one set of recommendations prominently on the ballot is obviously huge, since most voters are busy people unlikely to search elsewhere.

We should have a Vancity members' online forum, where we can share information with each other. This would be especially valuable during elections (but should run year-round). We could share our views on election candidates, including links to other websites with relevant information such as endorsements.

No recommendations should appear on the ballot. If a majority of Vancity members want the board or the NEC to make recommendations, those can be published in the member forum, where they can compete with recommendations from other sources. The ballot and voter info material can direct voters to the online forum.

Personally, I would like Vancity's directors and/or NEC members to make voting recommendations. I'm sure they have a lot of valuable insight to share on which candidates would make better directors. But I'd also like to get advice from other sources. We should have an information-rich election process.

Instead, what we have now is censorship:

Not only do our current Vancity election rules put NEC recommendations prominently on the ballot, but our rules also prevent other recommendations from reaching voters' eyes. The Vancity election guidelines include (on p48 of this file):
9. endorsements – Current board members, officers and non-director members of Board committees may not formally or informally express support or non-support for any candidates, except through the formal board recommendation process.

External networks, coalitions, or organizations beyond the control of the candidate or of Vancity may continue a historical tradition of advising their members which candidates they prefer. If this happens, candidates are not permitted to show the endorsement of these networks, coalitions or organizations in any of their campaign materials or in their formal or informal communications, directly or indirectly, or to otherwise rely upon such endorsements/recommendations.

At any given time, a board of directors may be dominated by a group that forms a majority of the board. Directors who are not part of this majority are the members' best hope for a check and balance against any abuse of power (or just poor policies) by the dominant group. Unfortunately, we at Vancity have several rules that enable the majority to silence dissident directors. One of those rules is the first sentence of election guideline #9 above. Here are more:

From page 36 of the same file:
If an individual director disagrees with a decision made by the board, the director must nonetheless support the decision or resign from the board.

From page 40, which is part of the "Standards of Business Conduct Policy and Ethical Behaviour for Directors":
Directors are encouraged to fully debate issues that come to the board for decision at board meetings, however, once a matter has been decided by the board the board acts as one body in supporting this decision. Individual positions on a matter are left in the board room.

From page 15:
3.4 Removal of Directors
A person may be removed as a Director by Board resolution passed by not less than two thirds of the remaining Directors if that Director:
(b) has breached the Standards of Business Conduct Policy and Ethical Behaviour for Directors;
as determined by the remaining Directors in accordance with the policies and procedures relating to Director review established by the Conduct Review Committee.

Apparently we at Vancity don't consider whistle-blowing to be "Ethical Behaviour for Directors". As you can see, this silencing of dissident directors extends well beyond election recommendations. But for now I'll return to focusing on elections.

3.5 Election Process
If at least two thirds of the Directors resolve that a member’s nomination information is in any material respect false, incomplete or misleading, or that the candidacy is frivolous, vexatious or for the purpose of harming Vancity, the Board may reject the member as a candidate for Director.
Vexatious? Hmm... "He shouldn't be a candidate. It vexes me. I'm terribly vexed."

As a Vancity voter seeking an information-rich election process, I would like to hear various viewpoints on which candidates would make the best directors. I would like to hear dissident directors' views, and I would like to hear views from anyone, including external networks, coalitions, or organizations. It is not in the members' interests to silence these views.

All the above rules may have been implemented with the best intentions. But by giving the NEC and the board majority such control over the information that voters see, they reduce effective competition in elections. Whether intentionally or not, this has the effect of reducing the members' democratic power and shifting power to the board majority.

More censorship:

These are from the Election Guidelines on pages 46-47 of the same file:

4. platforms – A Board of Directors operates and makes decisions as a group and therefore it is not appropriate nor permitted for a candidate to claim that he or she has or will implement specific platforms or policies. Candidates must not make promises of what will happen or what actions they will support if they are elected to the board in any materials that they distribute or that tend to support them, directly or indirectly. The opinion of the Nominations and Election Committee is final on whether content of election material constitutes a platform or promise.

The objective of the Board of Directors is to support Vancity and its vision. There will be no negative campaigning; candidates may not make or support negative comments about Vancity, its management, staff, Board, or other candidates.

Notice how the first sentence of #4 above logically supports the first phrase of the next sentence ("Candidates must not make promises of what will happen") but does not support the next phrase ("or what actions they will support"). OK, if I'm a candidate I can't truthfully say I will implement something, but why can't I say I will support an action?

And anyway, if the NEC believes that a candidate has made an impossible promise, I think they should advise Vancity voters of this via the members' forum, and then let us voters decide if we want to not vote for them. The NEC shouldn't make that decision for us by disqualifying them.

As for the last sentence of #4, negative campaigning can be a problem, but censorship is a much worse problem. Some negative things need to be said. (Good thing I'm not a candidate!)

5. slates or combinations – Vancity prohibits the use of slates or group identification between candidates. Candidates should run on their own merits and must exercise independent judgment as a Board member. Candidates are not permitted to support or affiliate with other candidates in any campaign material/information, formal or informal communication with members or the general public. Candidates must not affiliate with existing Board members or take common positions on issues that would tend to identify them as belonging to a group or acting in concert.

A ruling based on the last sentence above would require a subjective judgment as to whether a candidate's positions "would tend to identify them as belonging to a group or acting in concert."

7. campaigning
... Candidates must use caution when linking any new media campaign material to external party sites. If a candidates does link to third party sites, and these sites contravene the election guidelines, it may be deemed that the candidate has contravened the guidelines. ...

All these rules are interpreted by the Nominations and Election Committee (appointed by the board majority), with a potential penalty of being disqualified from the election. It's no wonder the Georgia Straight article had no quote from the election candidates they contacted, saying only: "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."

Commenter Wayne L. Richards on the Georgia Straight article expressed it well:
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.

Improving Vancity's voter info system:

We at Vancity should repeal most of our restrictions on free speech of directors and candidates, and create a year-round online forum for members.

Having worked for years on how to improve voter information systems, I recognize that it's hard to get it right. There is no perfect system. There are tradeoffs. For example, depending on how an online forum is designed and administered, it may bring forth personal attacks, which can be detrimental to the election information process. However, years of experimentation have found ways of minimizing such harmful effects, while making the best use of the internet as a forum for discussion that serves the community interest.

I lead a group of volunteers at, a nonprofit open source project. We have developed a voter information system that works well. We give it away for free, and help organizations implement it for free. I would be especially happy to help Vancity use votermedia.

Our system would let Vancity members vote to allocate a limited budget of Vancity funds (e.g. $10,000 per election) among competing bloggers who cover the election and evaluate candidates. ( doesn't provide the bloggers -- that's an open competition anyone can enter.) We have helped the University of British Columbia's student union (the Alma Mater Society or AMS) do this for the past six years. You can see the positive impact in video interviews of UBC students, at I especially recommend this one: How VoterMedia Affects Election Campaigns. A quote from it:
"Third party analysis of candidates, having people ask questions, rather than having the candidates just print up a 150-word blurb, and putting it on a website or in a handout, is way more effective..." [-- Matthew Naylor, AMS VP External 2007-2008]
Here are some examples of endorsements from a leading UBC votermedia blog:
These are not just recommendations; they include reasoned explanations. Some are written by the blog editors; some are guest posts from incumbent elected leaders (individuals' opinions, not official committee endorsements). To maintain their blog's reputation, the editors invite guest posts that they consider helpful to voters.

Of course, a credit union is different from a student union. The people who would enter and win a competition for covering Vancity elections would be those who have insight into Vancity and its particular needs.

Voters who want to decide on their own can still do so. They may find some of the insights from blogs useful. With a variety of endorsements available, we voters will make the final decisions ourselves in whatever ways we choose.

There's plenty more info at, including our publications page, where I would recommend Briefing on VoterMedia for ASUC. Also we were recently covered in The Tyee:

How all this affects my votes:

As mentioned above, directors who are not part of the dominant majority are our best hope for keeping the board responsive to us Vancity members. Because incumbents Lisa Barrett and Wendy Holm are not recommended by the NEC, that's a clear signal that they are independent of the dominant group. I have heard positive things about Gil Yaron, and am impressed with his experience, especially at SHARE, an organization I respect.

I wish I had more time to learn about all the candidates, but voting started 12 days ago so I'd better post this soon. I would appreciate hearing from candidates and any members who care about these issues. Please send your thoughts, questions, advice etc via comments here or email to mark[at] I haven't voted yet, and am open to new info and to changing my mind. I may update this post, or comment below, or write another post.

On that note, another reform I would recommend is to start the election campaign period at least one week before voting starts. Our current system of starting both at once gives the NEC's recommendations yet another advantage over other perspectives.

See you at the Vancity AGM on May 8!

1 comment:

Mark Latham said...

BTW I sequenced my endorsements BARRETT - YARON - HOLM to match the sequence on the Vancity ballot. It doesn't indicate my preference order.