Mountain-Equipment Co-op ballot criticized as undemocratic

3.8 million co-op members can vote until March 28

One of the founding directors of Mountain Equipment Co-op, the iconic outdoor equipment resource that got its start in Vancouver in 1971, fears the democratic principles of the co-operative will be eroded if too much influence shifts from the 3.8 million members to the nine elected board members.

MEC members are at the polls until March 28 to elect three new directors and to vote on three special resolutions, including Special Resolution 1, which is endorsed by the board.

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The board argues this resolution will provide a balanced approach, bring necessary changes and reality checks to the [rules] and strengthen MECs leadership potential while maintaining member input.

Sara Golling, one of six University of B.C. students who started the co-op out of a van more than 40 years ago, is opposed to the boards recommended resolution, which she likens to an omnibus bill because numerous issues are grouped together and must all be either supported or rejected.

In an online discussion about the resolutions, Golling wrote, I acknowledge that many of the changes the board is suggesting are positive and beneficial, but there are enough that bother me that I think the membership should say, NO, please try again.

The board proposes to modernize MEC rules by aligning them, in part, with the B.C. Cooperative Association Act, which would increase the number of signatories needed to advance a member-submitted resolution. As it stands, a member must have five additional members sign on to support a resolution. Drawing from the Cooperative Association Act, the board recommends that threshold jump to 500.

Golling, who lives in Rossland and was previously elected to the board of directors, does not believe this change is needed to comply with the legislation that governs the co-op. The board already has and would retain the power to refuse any resolution, she said. So putting in place such a severe limit on member participation seems unnecessary, Golling told the Courier earlier this month.

To give an example, two separate member-proposed resolutions on this ballot have the support of seven and 16 members.

The board also recommends in Special Resolution 1 that specific candidates be given greater prominence in the election materials, a stipulation Golling said would create an artificial ballot.

There are quite a few of us who regard these changes as an erosion of democratic participation, she said.

(Golling is not currently a candidate for the MEC board but was previously an elected director and committee member.)

The board proposes that the ballot identify candidates whom the directors wish to recommend for election and single them out from other candidates who still nonetheless meet minimum qualifications.

The Board believes this is a measured approach that will provide guidance without restricting choice, states the election material. The Board will be able to indicate to members which candidates it feels would create the most balanced board, but members will be able to choose between all of the qualified candidates on the ballot.

Golling described this as an excessive use of power. This would tend to result in the board consisting entirely of board-selected people, she said, pointing out that members previously voted overwhelmingly in favour of screening all potential candidates.

Dru Oja Jay ran unsuccessfully for the MEC board of directors and is on the editorial board of the Dominion, a national news magazine and media co-operative. In March 2012 he co-founded MEC members for a Democratic Co-op and does not support the screening of candidates.

Mountain Equipment Co-op is succumbing to corporate priorities and excluding its millions of members, he said.

They think they know best, and member participation is a sort of obstacle to them being able to make the decisions they want to make, Jay wrote in an email. In terms of a democratic, member-owned organization with cooperative values, these changes have less than no merit. They are regressive and negative, and the membership will struggle with them for decades if they pass.

Every co-op is an opportunity to bring the members together to envision how we want our economy to operate. We don't have any control over what corporations do because they're autocratic structures. The amazing thing about co-ops is that they're member-owned, so we can do whatever the members want.

MEC members can vote by telephone and online at mec.ca until noon Vancouver time on March 28. The complete election package, including candidates and special resolutions as well as an online discussion, is available at mec.ca.

mstewart@vancourier.com

twitter.com/MHStewart

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