Mail Balloting or Member Meetings?

Pick One: Quantity or Quality

By Harrison Drinkwater

"The day we lost the Co-op was the day we switched to mail ballots," said Michael O'Reilly,* a former president of the Vermont Electricity Co-op.* He was talking about the electric co-op, but he meant it as a warning to our food co-op.

*Fictitious names, but accurate quotation.

What was it about mail ballots -- a device that was meant to involve more voters -- that so worried O'Reilly?

In the case of the electric co-op, the mail ballot had the net effect of entrenching the status quo.

Sure, more people were able to vote, but they generally chose incumbents or voted with the safe status quo. The "management slate" used the printing presses to their advantage and it was almost impossible for the co-op "dissidents" (who also happened to be anti-nuke) to get their position across in the small space allowed them in the Co-op's newsletter.

If the Board election had been open enough to engage candidates in a debate -- witnessed by their voting constituents -- then perhaps, say the dissidents, they could have kept their co-op out of the nuclear power morass. But mail ballots never gave candidates a chance to argue, yell, sweat, agree or compromise on the floor of the Co-op's annual meeting. Mail ballots don't do justice to both sides of a complicated issue.

But there were other reasons in my friend's mind that made mail ballots a hollow form of democracy.

He had spent much of his life farming and raising a family in a small Vermont town, which meant that every first Thursday in March every year, he and his family trundled off to Town Hall to discuss and vote on the school budget, a new snow plow for the town truck, the salary to pay the town librarian, and all the other financial and political matters that make a town work. It is such an important ritual that most people take the day off for Vermont Town Meeting Day.

Notice, though, that there were no mail ballots to cast for those issues. One had to be present to be counted, and that suited my friend. "Going to Meeting" was a duty of every citizen.

I think we cooperators may be neglecting the oldfashioned notion of "civic duties." In our desire to make voting easier, faster, and more convenient for our members, we may be gutting the whole concept of voting. Casting an informed vote on a co-op issue requires forethought and time spent hearing both sides of the matter, and that's best done at a meeting with other members. It's rare that you can achieve the same results by dropping a card in the mail.

I'll be the first to admit that not all meetings are paragons of participatory democracy. Some are a real drag. "The meeting is only as good as the person facilitating it," says Dan Grossman, the elected moderator of the Thetford, Vermont, Town Meeting. "If you have a dud for a moderator, you'll have a crummy meeting."

Co-op educators ought to see an opportunity hidden in his remark. Since we're in the business of building democratic businesses, we should begin with the conduct of our own meetings. Just as we want members to be more informed voters, we should train directors to conduct meetings that elicit the best advice from the membership. Simply said, we should encourage people to practice their citizenship skills on both sides of the podium.

What about the young families that can't come to meetings because babysitting is such a hassle? Have co-op child care arranged in advance. What about senior members who don't like to drive at night? Organize co-op car pools. What about people who live too far away or whose work hours conflict with the meeting time? Hold the meeting at different times or locales that best serve those members.

But what about the vast number of members who just don't like to come to meetings, but who would like to be part of the decision-making process.

To them I say, "sorry."

Co-ops need your active participation more than your good intentions. And there are some simple reasons why "arm chair voters" should not replace members at a meeting.

First is language. I have yet to see a pre-printed motion that will cover all the nuances and outright changes that the meeting stamps on a resolution before it is finally put to a vote.

Second is human nature. The people who really care about an issue are the ones who will move heaven, earth, and their favorite TV show to attend the meeting. They are likely to be the best informed and therefore best able to decide for the members who couldn't attend. (And if they make the wrong decision, then next year a new group will take their place to stand up and be counted.)

Third is cost. I'll bet that some large co-ops spend thousands of dollars in printing, mailing, and validating mail ballots. If we must spend these sums, then let's PAY people to attend meetings. It's really the same gesture.

I think the French author Alexis de Toqueville had it right more than 100 years ago when he observed: "The health of a democratic society may be measured by the quality of functions performed by private citizens." Mail ballots increase the quantity of votes, but they do little for the quality of the decision.


Start Thinking Like a Member

By Kathy Ehnebuske

Should members vote in meetings or by mail ballot? That's the question I'm supposed to be answering. When the annual meeting draws less than 1% of the membership and the mail ballot for elections a whopping 3%, I have the dubious task of choosing between abject failure and failure. Disliking to admit defeat, I'm inclined to redefine success.

I've spent endless hours lamenting the apathy of our members. I've struggled to entice their presence at annual meetings. I've tolerated meetings where the quality of decision making is poor, yet been grateful that anyone showed up.

Moving on, I see two questions to resolve before member participation can become effective: What is member control? How is it best exercised?

Assuming people form cooperative businesses to meet their needs, it is reasonable to assume that the business will fail if those needs are not met. For members, the issue of control should be assuring that the business remains healthy and responsive to members.

Maintaining a healthy business, particularly in the competitive grocery environment, requires sophisticated business knowledge and careful management. It is in the members' best interest to hire professionals to make competent business decisions. Monitoring management and making policy decisions is best done by the Board of Directors, selected carefully by the membership.

Members participate by choosing the Board of Directors and voting on major policy issues. Given most members' involvement, it is imperative that all choices given to the membership be carefully reviewed by the Board and management before being offered to the members. Members should not be consulted to find a path, but rather to determine which of two sensible paths they would like to follow. If the tasks given to members are not appropriate, you are likely to find a two hour discussion on whether or not to support a boycott and ten minutes spent approving the annual budget.

While members of a co-op can hire management to make good business decisions, the only way a cooperative business can be sure it stays responsive to members is to stay in touch. All major companies spend extensive resources on market research, determining what people want. Co-ops are in a position to be leaders in providing what people want. We have the names and addresses of most of our customers.

Unfortunately, we defeat this advantage when we assume that members will come to us with their complaints and opinions.

Watching members through the years, I've come to the conclusion that most members don't want to participate in our traditional forums for member involvement. The typical Co-op shopper has no need to socialize with other Co-op members at meetings. S/he is not interested in elections.

Ms. Typical Member will shop loyally for years, perhaps making an occasional suggestion, reading signs and newsletters. She'll ignore elections and policy questions, particularly if she doesn't feel informed enough to make a decision, concluding that the people who are "active" will make a decision.

Rather than view the typical member as a problem needing reform, I propose that it is our methods for communicating with members which need reform. We need to go to the members instead of complaining when they don't come to us. We need to respect their lack of interest in meetings and reach out to them in other ways. We need to solicit their needs and then work to meet them.

What are their needs? Where is the best place to ask questions? The most effective place to communicate with members is the store, preferably in the context of their shopping. In-store surveys, particularly with live people asking questions, are very effective. Members love to express their opinions, even if they are unwilling to attend a meeting or submit a suggestion. For members, having candidates in the store to answer questions and meet members is less intimidating than meetings.

Meetings will always be part of making democratic decisions. Members should always have avenues to study the issues facing the Co-op and a place to make their opinions known. This group of members should be respected and appreciated. From this pool comes members informed enough to be on the Board of Directors.

For the rest, stuff an information flyer in their shopping bags. Use volunteers to run informal opinion surveys in the store. Increase your odds for success: start thinking like a member.

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