Tuesday, 11 November 2014
More on why I'm running for the board of the S.F. Bicycle Coalition
Announcement of my candidacy
Candidates' statements and election info
Follow-up letter to members of the SF Bicycle Coalition
In announcing my candidacy for the for the Board of Directors of the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition, I said that I would bring to the Board a focus on policy advocacy, on bicyclists' rights, and on participatory decision-making and internal transparency and democracy within the SFBC -- all of which have been under-represented on the current Board.
What does this mean, and why are these issues important?
I've been active on local issues related to the rights of bicyclists, pedestrians, and transit users since I moved to San Francisco in 1985. (You can learn more about me in my statement announcing my candidacy and my answers to the current Board's questionnaire for Board condidates.) I've marched -- and ridden -- for bicyclists' rights. I've testified as a bicyclist before the Board of Supervisors and the Police Commission, on issues ranging from police bias against bicyclists to zoning requirements for motor vehicle parking. I've been involved in advocacy on regional issues like those involving bike routes through SFO and along Bayshore Blvd. between San Francisco and the Peninsula. I've gone to Sacramento to testify before state legislators and make the rounds of the state capital talking to legislators and their aides about the 3-foot passing law that went into effect in September of this year, and which I helped to improve significantly from the flawed version that might otherwise have become state law.
But in recent years, I've been met with surprise by members of the SFBC staff and Board of Directors whenever I've tried to put forward proposals for action or raised questions about how and by whom SFBC decisions are made.
The staff and Board of Directors of the SFBC no longer expect policy, program, or legislative initiatives or proposals to come from ordinary members of our organization. There hasn't been a quorum at a membership meeting of the SFBC, so that any business could be transacted, in more years than anyone I've talked to can remember. Lack of a quorum doesn't preclude regular or special meetings for discussion or debate, and mechanisms could be provided for online voting, as they are for the elections for the Board of Directors. But the SFBC hasn't bothered to hold any general membership meetings in years, except for a legally required but meaningless "annual meeting" at which there are no motions, debates, votes, or decisions.
The current Board of Directors is composed entirely of slates of candidates nominated by previous Board members. What are the Board's membership, decision-making process, and priorities?
As part of my effort to understand the state of our organization, I've read through all the minutes of the last three years of meetings of the Board. I'm the only ordinary SFBC member who has asked to see them, or so I was told. The right of any member to inspect the minutes of the Board is explicitly enshrined in state law and in the Bylaws of the SFBC. But SFBC staff and Board members dragged their feet for months before allowing me to see the the minutes.
When I was finally allowed to read the minutes, I found that there was no record of any motion, debate, vote, or decision by the Board of Directors on any substantive political or policy issue in at last the last three years. If there was any discussion by the Board of Directors of the substantive political agenda and priorities of the organization, it occurred entirely in "Executive Session" from which members were excluded.
It's impossible to determine from the minutes, or from attending those portions of Board meetings that are open to members (as I've been doing whenever I can), what position any individual member of the Board has taken with respect to any of the policy choices the SFBC has made in recent years, or where any Board member stands on any of the issues on which bicyclists have different opinions about policies or priorities.
The SFBC's most important statement of political goals and positions, its 5-year "Strategic Plan", was adopted by the Board of Directors without any meeting at which it could be debated by the members, much less where amendments could be proposed or where any vote could be taken. The Board discussed the Strategic Plan exclusively in "Executive Sessions" closed to members.
Members of the Board of Directors spend much of their time on fund-raising. Board members are unpaid volunteers, and I appreciate both the time and the money they contribute to the organization. But fund-raising is not part of "governance" (decision-making and financial oversight), and could and should be the province of a separate fundraising committee, as it is in many nonprofit organizations.
In response to my questions about how I or other members could contact the Board of Directors, an e-mail address was created last year for "firstname.lastname@example.org". Other than that, none of the members of the Board have provided ordinary members of the organization with any way to communicate with them. Board members do, however, devote substantial time to reaching out to, and listening to, potential major donors. I'm sure the intent isn't to sell access or influence. But the inevitable result of the role of the Board in soliciting major donations is to make the Board more aware of, and likely to be more responsive to, the concerns of major donors than those of less wealthy members.
I also discovered from the current Board's questionnaire for Board candidates that the current Board has a policy of endorsing only candidates who promise to contribute, or bring in from other donors, at least $500 a year for the SFBC.
I don't think most SFBC members are aware of, or would support, this policy.
In effect, this policy means that the the SFBC has a de facto two-tier membership structure. People like me who have been paying their dues faithfully -- in my case for more than 15 years -- and think we are members in good standing, are actually second-class members ineligible for Board endorsement. Only those "super-members" who have contributed or brought in ten times the regular dues are considered eligible to have a say in organizational decisions.
That's just wrong, and particularly counter-productive for an organization that wants to become more inclusive, diverse, and representative of all San Francisco bicyclists.
I wasn't told why my candidacy wasn't endorsed by the current Board. I presume, however, that a significant part of the reason is that I told the Board's endorsement committee that I don't think there should be any financial means test for Board candidates. Any member in good standing should be considered equally eligible for election to the Board, based on their qualifications and policy positions and not on their wealth or connections to major donors.
Aside from their potential financial contributions, Board candidates appear to be recruited and endorsed by the current Board predominantly on the basis of administrative and financial ability. Those are important skills that are necessary for the Board's role as financial overseer, and I'm glad that management skills are well represented on the current Board.
But the Board's responsibility for "governance" includes more than financial or administrative oversight. Especially in the absence of any other forum for policy debate within the organization, the Board has the primary responsibility for making political decisions about the SFBC's goals, strategies, tactics, and positions on new issues as they arise.
So far as I can tell, none of the members of the current Board, and none of the other candidates, are primarily focused on this policy analysis and decision-making aspect of the Board's responsibility for organizational governance.
The SFBC is an activist political organizations that can expect to face ongoing political challenges, choices, and decisions to be made. Civil rights activism on behalf of bicyclists requires paradigm shift, not just normal science. If we are to have a 5-Year Plan, it should certainly be submitted for debate, amendment, and ratification by the membership. But we can't anticipate all the issues that future events will raise, or expect to reduce our politics to a 5-Year Plan that once adopted can be followed without the need of further thought.
The SFBC is a coalition, in reality and not just in name. SFBC members ride differently and for different reasons, and have different ideas of what policies are best for ourselves and other bicyclists. Not all bicyclists agree on what "we" want, but there has been no effort by the current Board to nominate new members who represent a diversity of opinions on the political questions about which San Francisco bicyclists differ. It's especially important for members of the Board to keep this diversity in mind this year while hiring a new Executive Director.
A "self-perpetuating" board of directors which nominates its own successors is inherently vulnerable to group-think and to "capture" by a single point of view that comes to be taken for granted as universal. There's no natural tendency to self-correction in such a process. It requires constant conscious intervention, usually from the outside, to remind such a Board of the existence of other points of view.
We need to re-establish mechanisms within the SFBC to air our differences, understand how and why we ride differently, find common ground, and try to determine priorities that encompass our diversity. So far as I can tell, neither the current SFBC Board nor staff are doing anything to address this need. Neither this nor any aspect of our internal decision-making process is mentioned in the Strategic Plan -- which reflects, I think, the extent to which the importance of internal democracy has been overlooked or forgotten by the present Board.
The SFBC is doing good work, and I want that work to continue. But we can do more, and there are things that are being overlooked or that simply aren't of concern to the current Board.
The election of the Board of Directors by the general membership is the only remaining vestige of a role for SFBC members in making organizational decisions. Any restoration of greater transparency and a larger role for members in organizational decision-making will have to start, as I'm trying to do this year, with candidates running for election to the Board of Directors.
If you're a member of the SFBC, please vote! Online voting is now open, and SFBC members can vote here through Friday, November 28th. [Voting was supposed to end November 21st. But just before the polls were supposed to close, without warning or notice to candidates or members, voting was extended for another week. I did not request or consent to this extension, and have protested it as improper.]
If you know me -- as a bicyclist, a friend, a neighbor, an activist, a colleague, a policy analyst, a believer in transparent and participatory decision-making, an observer of travel infrastructure and what can be done to make it work better, someone who asks hard but important questions that others don't see or don't ask, someone who has worked in coalitions with people who don't usually talk to each other, and enabled them to find and work together on common causes -- please vote for me, and spread the word to your cycling San Francisco friends.Link | Posted by Edward on Tuesday, 11 November 2014, 09:29 ( 9:29 AM) | TrackBack (0)