Guest Opinion: Reviving Credit Union Democracy
After sitting through years of my credit union's sparsely attended annual meetings, which seemed to be held for the sole reason that doing so is required by law, I decided to try something new this year and run for the board of directors. There had not been a contested election since I joined the organization as a member back in late 2007, and a majority of seats were up for grabs in a single election. Realizing the importance of this latter fluke, I rounded up a few like-minded members, and, after drawing up a platform of reforms aimed at increasing transparency and opportunities for member participation, we announced our intention to run by posting an event on our credit union's Facebook page.
According to the annual meeting notice, we needed to obtain 20 signatures on a petition in order to be included on the ballot with the incumbents, whose candidacy had been pre-approved by the board-selected nominating committee.
A week out and three signatures to go, we were hit with stunning news. An email had been sent that morning to all the credit union's members announcing that, due to a mistake in the initial email, the meeting was being moved back a month. At first I didn't catch the nature of the “mistake,” but, on the third read-through, it struck me like a thunderbolt. The ballot access requirements were being changed from the signatures of 20 members to those of 1% of the total membership or 330.
Though our credit union has a community charter, in reality, community credit union membership is not a shared identity in the same way as in a credit union with an employer- or church-based common bond. As such, there could be absolutely no way that we could round up a sufficient number of signatures within the web of our own social relationships. Instead, we'd have to canvass the membership directly.
Though initially frustrating, there are ways in which the new, expanded requirement has been a blessing in disguise. Each signature we collect is, in reality, a record of a conversation with a fellow member. Some of those chats have been short, like telling a member about our intention to post the nonconfidential portion of board meeting minutes on the website. Others have been rather lengthy, with some members asking tough questions about why we want to run and the nature of our vision for the credit union. In the end, though, almost every person with whom we've talked has seemed supportive.
Though we've just comfortably crossed the half-way point with a few weeks to go before the deadline, the experience thus far has sparked some very interesting conversations in our group about a number of flaws in the current electoral process that, because it is enshrined in the NCUA's model bylaws, is standard in most credit unions.
First, since the credit union movement is trending toward a smaller and smaller number of bigger and bigger community-charter credit unions, the previously mentioned lack of shared identity among members is becoming increasing problematic. When a credit union has 10,000 members, collecting 100 (1%) signatures is a bit of work but doable. As more and more credit unions' size pushes the requirements to the maximum of 500, however, a substantial barrier to entry has gradually been erected that only the most determined challengers of the status quo dare to scale. As a result, nominating committees have tended to re-nominate incumbents for their posts, and the culture of democracy in many credit unions has atrophied from lack of use.
Though we've yet to firmly decide which path we will ultimately take should we win the coming vote, the members of our slate have identified two possible strategies for addressing this issue and starting the work of reviving a democratic culture in credit unions. The first is to task the nominating committee with actively recruiting board candidates and approving ballot access for any member who desires to run (subject to a handful of restrictions, such as not nominating people with histories of embezzlement, etc.). The second is to lower the number of required signatures to somewhere in the 50 to 100 range and require all candidates (incumbents included) to collect signatures in order to get on the ballot.
The advantage of the former strategy is that it would likely lead to more candidates, and thus more competitive elections. The latter, on the other hand, would likely produce fewer total candidates than the former (though still more than the present system), but, as candidates would be essentially required to spend several hours promoting the annual meeting to the membership as they collect signatures, more members would likely show up and participate.
Though our project is still in its early stages, it has already become blindingly clear to us that a key component of any reforms that the credit union movement undertakes in order to address its identity crisis and democratic deficit must put electoral reform front and center. As long as the machinery governing our financial cooperatives protects incumbents and makes it extremely difficult for interested members to participate in a meaningful way, members will direct their energies elsewhere. By lowering that barrier, however, the vision, talents, and labor of thousands of new volunteers might be harassed to the project of building the credit union future. Let's stop throwing up walls, and instead commence with the serious work of building the movement.