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VANCOUVER, Wash. – Members of Columbia Community Credit Union who wish to force the $600 million credit union to vote again on whether to change its charter say that they have “well over” 50% of the signatures they need. A very narrow margin in the original balloting has encouraged members opposed to the conversion to believe that a second vote on the question might prevent the charter change. The members opposed to the conversion have organized themselves under the name Save Columbia Credit Union and need to have 2,000 signatures on petitions to force a special meeting at which a number of different options might be possible. But whether a special meeting could be scheduled before it actually takes place remains unclear, the dissident members said, and there are still many indications that the whole issue is liable to wind up in court before it is settled. The fight got started after 16% of the members of the Vancouver-based state chartered CU voted very narrowly to change its charter to that of a state chartered mutual bank. The vote culminated in a very contentious meeting on November 3 at which the dissidents allege the credit union violated several of its own bylaws. Executives of the credit union and the credit union’s legal counsel have strongly disputed that any errors were made in the vote or in the conduct of the meeting. The Columbia vote has differed from the other 28 charter conversion votes across the country in that it was so close and so contentious. Of the almost 10,000 votes cast in the disputed election, the margin of victory was 414 votes. The lowest estimated margin of victory in the other votes, according to CU Financial Services, a consultancy firm that advocates charter change, has been 66%. The most recent charter change vote, which occurred at @tlantec Federal Credit Union, headquartered in Virginia Beach, Virginia, on December 2, was 72%. The effort to challenge and reverse the charter vote has grown almost exponentially from the five of six members who met on December 10th and donated time and money to building a Web site dedicated to opposing the vote and to taking out an advertisement in a local newspaper to promote the Web site. Lloyd Marbet, Executive Director of the Oregon Conservancy Foundation is a principal leader among the alienated Columbia members. He said members at the December 10 meeting said that the members who are organized had struck upon the petition drive as a way to measure the degree of support for fighting the vote. “We definitely think there is support for this,” Marbet said. “I think the vote results indicate that, as well as the reaction to the meeting,” he said. He explained that the disaffected members had not abandoned their legal recourses and estimated that the dispute would still likely wind up in court, but the members wanted to build awareness about the issue as well, he said. Marbett and the other six principal organizers, which include Tony Ward-Smith, a long time Columbia member and credit union consultant, feel their confidence has been to some extent vindicated as members participated by either signing petitions or by helping collect signatures. Collecting signatures looked like it might become a flashpoint for a while as the Save CCU supporters alleged that they were being prevented from doing so freely and the credit union countered that the petition supporters had been blocking drive-thru lanes, harassing credit union staff, impersonating credit union staff and making “defamatory” statements. The credit union asked that the petitioners sign a document called a Request for Access before petitioning, and David Doss, CEO of Columbia, indicated that petition takers who declined to sign and abide by the document would be arrested for trespassing. However, although the credit union called police in several instances, no members have been arrested, and Marbet reported on December 29 that the credit union “seemed to be backing off of their effort to remove petitioners.” Some petitioners signed their application for petitioning, he explained, but some did not. Doss reported that the credit union had petition takers at four of its 11 branches as early as December 22 and that the credit union had become concerned for safety after there had been petitioners in the drive-thru lines. Doss explained that he takes the petition drive seriously and suggested that credit union members’ fear of changes to their service level and in their beloved credit union might be one factor driving the opposition to the conversion. Where Are The Regulators? Save CCU leaders also got a boost on December 17 when NCUA Board Chairman Dennis Dollar admitted that the agency had, in fact, disapproved Columbia’s charter conversion vote pending further investigation into complaints from members about it. Under Part 708a.6 of NCUA’s regulations, the credit union’s board of directors must certify the results of the membership vote to NCUA’s Regional Director within 10 calendar days after the vote is taken. The regulations in Part 708a.7 then direct the Regional Director to “issue a determination that the methods and procedures applicable to the membership vote are approved or disapproved” inside of 10 calendar days. If the agency disapproves the methods and procedures of the vote it can, but does not have to, direct the credit union to take the vote again. It can also complete the investigation and decide to approve the vote. Previous agency spokesmen had said that the agency had responded to Columbia within the mandated 10 days but had not said that the agency had approved or disapproved the vote pending more information. However, even if NCUA did not direct a revote on the question, the conversion may still lack the necessary approvals. Because the credit union has applied to become a state chartered mutual bank, the Washington State Department of Financial Institutions Banking Division must also approve the vote and could direct Columbia to conduct an additional round of balloting. That is why a task force consisting of NCUA officials as well as those of the credit union and banking divisions at the Washington State Department of Financial Institutions has been looking into the Columbia vote, according to Linda Jekel, Director of DFI’s Division of Credit Unions. Jekel also reported that the Washington State side of the task force had completed its work and forwarded its opinions to the NCUA. “We’re just waiting to hear what they have to say,” Jekel said, before the Division of Banking will decide its next move. -

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