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VANCOUVER, Wash. – While it is still too soon to make predictions, it appears that members of Columbia Credit Union opposed to its attempt to become a mutual bank may succeed in preventing the proposed move. Columbia’s membership voted narrowly in the fall of 2003 to change the CU’s charter from that of a state chartered credit union to a state chartered mutual bank. The 90 day balloting culminated in a contentious meeting on November 3 which some credit union members have alleged was mishandled. The charter changing vote was extremely close. Out of almost 10,000 votes cast, the measure passed by a mere 414 votes. As Credit Union Times went to press, the dissenting Columbia members, who have organized themselves into Save Columbia Credit Union, are delivering what they claim will be more than 3,500 members’ signatures on petitions calling for a special meeting of the membership. At that meeting, if it goes according to Save CCU’s plan, members will vote to rescind the previous member vote that approved the charter change, recall the existing board of directors, and vote into place an interim board of directors which would run Columbia until the next annual meeting. “When you think about it, credit union members really have only one way to reverse a credit union board’s decision and that is through changing the board in a special meeting,” said Steve Straub, a former employee and CEO of the institution and long term member. Straub has taken time from his job as the founder and CEO of Competitive Edge, a software design firm that helps credit unions measure member and employee satisfaction, to help with the Save CCU effort. “I was an employee of Columbia’s for 22 years and a member for 33,” Straub said. “I got involved because I don’t think enough members understood what this charter change really meant,” he added. Straub was CEO from 1988 to 1992 when he left the credit union’s employ to start his own firm. The dissidents plan a somewhat celebratory atmosphere at the signature delivery and have urged many of their supporters to come. “Wednesday is the day. Be there for the fun,” read a message to the Save CCU’s participants and backers. “You did the hard work. And it paid off! We want you to participate in this important event!” An advisory to the local media estimated that between 60 and 70 Columbia members will be at the signature delivery and pointed out that the signatures were collected at a time when the entire area had been going through one of the worst winter storms in decades. Once Save CCU delivers the signatures, Straub acknowledged that the organization will enter a new phase. Under the credit union’s bylaws, which closely mimic federal regulation since Columbia had been a federally chartered credit union, the credit union has 10 days from the receipt of the petitions to send out a notice of the special meeting, according to Straub. The bylaws also specify that the meeting must take place between 20 and 30 days from the receipt of the petitions. For its part, Columbia acknowledged that the interest of the members in the issue is high and pledged to move forward as fast as possible, according to Colleen Boccia, Vice President of Marketing for the institution. Boccia explained that the firm’s outside auditing firm and legal counsel would handle the validating of the signatures and that the credit union was already working with regulators from the Credit Union Division of Washington State’s Department of Financial Institutions in the procedures for the special meeting. “Obviously, we haven’t done this before so we want to make sure we have regulatory approval for the procedures,” Boccia said. Straub did not know, and doubted anyone else would know, what would happen if the credit union received the petitions, set a date for the special meeting and then got regulatory approval and ceased being a credit union before the date of the meeting. “I think this could still wind up in court,” Straub said. With the time bind in mind, Straub explained that Save CCU was taking steps to try to ensure the fairness and speed of the outcome. In a transmittal letter that will accompany the petitions, Straub said the organization plans to ask that it be involved in the signature review process, so that there is no question about why a signature might be struck from the petition. Boccia said such observers were a possibility, but that there might be privacy questions which could preclude observers being present. “Would you want someone else necessarily knowing you were a member of the credit union,” she asked. Save CCU also wants to have a say in where and when the special meeting will be held, as well as in the notification sent out to the members about the special meeting. Straub acknowledged that all three areas, under the credit union bylaws, remain the responsibility of the current board. “We want to have some say in what goes out to members about the special meeting, and some direct involvement in the meeting agenda,” Straub said. “We’re adamant that a fair and objective presentation be offered to members before any vote is taken.with all sides of various issues presented, and all questions considered.” Under the bylaws, the special meeting can only discuss the item listed on the petition. “We already made it clear to both the state and federal regulatory agencies that we’ve got the signatures for the special membership meeting,” says Straub. “No matter what their ruling, since the organization is still a credit union and still operating under its bylaws, the special membership meeting must happen before any other formal action can take place.” Both agencies also were delivered copies of the signed petitions. Straub is also not overly sanguine about the outcome of a special meeting, either. While he hopes that a larger turnout of members would mean that the meeting went the way Save CCU would like, he said the organization has not been resting on its successes so far. “We know we’ll have a much greater turnout this time. And frankly, we have no real way of knowing how the vote might go. We’re very confident, however, that it will be a strong vote in favor of preserving the credit union,” says Straub. “People have been waking up to the full impact of this conversion plan. Most of them are quite angry about it.” -

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