Wednesday, 11 February 2015
Open letter to members of the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition
I'm a candidate for the Board of Directors of the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition
Candidates' statements and election info
More about the issues and why I'm running
I'm writing to my fellow members of the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition, to let you know about some important issues related to our interests as members and the recent election for the SFBC Board of Directors, in which I was a candidate.
Did you know that the membership of the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition has fallen by more than 20 percent in the last two years?
The cover of the Winter 2013 "Tube Times" had the tagline "12,000 members strong". By November 2014, there were only 9,315 members on our rolls!
Why has our membership gone down? Why so dramatically? And why now?
It's obvious that the number of bicyclists on the streets of San Francisco has been increasing. And it's not as though we've been so successful that cyclists no longer feel the need for an advocacy group like the SFBC: During the last two years, there has been a groundswell of outrage against killings of bicyclists and pedestrians by negligent motorists.
Some people may have joined the SFBC for member discounts that are no longer available, but that doesn't account for such a dramatic decline in member numbers (although it does highlight the danger of depending on commercial partnerships or other outside sources of funding).
If thousands more San Franciscans have chosen not to renew their SFBC memberships than have been replaced by new members, we should take it as a sign that many SF bicyclists may not see the SFBC as having effectively represented or advocated for their interests.
SFBC staff and members of the Board of Direction have made commendable efforts to increase the demographic diversity of our organization. But it's not enough for our membership to present the image of a rainbow coalition. If our membership is to grow, we need to make sure that the policies for which we advocate reflect the diversity within our membership not just of demographics but of opinions on the issues.
The more successful we are in broadening and diversifying our membership, the more we should expect to find differences of opinion within our coalition -- and the more we need to develop and institutionalize democratic, participatory mechanisms for internal discussion, debate, and decision-making.
Our political influence with city officials and the public derives from the credibility of our claim to speak for a large, diverse membership representative of SF bicyclists. If our "coalition" lacks internal democracy, we will lose our political legitimacy, and become vulnerable to criticism that we don't really speak for many SF bicyclists.
The SFBC was founded as a participatory "do-ocracy" in which the work was done by volunteer members and decisions were made by the people who were doing the work. It was eventually incorporated as a membership organization governed by the members ourselves, through membership meetings at which members could make, debate, and vote on proposals, and a Board of Directors elected by the members.
That's still our formal structure, but in practice essentially all decisions are now in the hands of an effectively self-perpetuating Board of Directors, or are delegated to staff. Decisions on issues on which SF bicyclists, including SFBC members, have had differing opinions have been announced without any opportunity for discussion or consensus-building within our organization.
There hasn't been a quorum at an SFBC membership meeting in years. Even the most important questions about our political platform have not been submitted to a vote of the members. There is no established process for members to propose actions or policy positions, or discuss them with our fellow members. To the extent there has been any discussion of substantive political issues by the Board of Directors, it has occurred entirely in Executive Sessions from which members are excluded.
Our coalition seems to have been moving in the direction of the statewide California Bicycle Coalition, which abolished members' voting rights in 2011, and transferred all decision-making power to a Board of Directors that selects its own successors. And the new Executive Director of the SF Bicycle Coalition comes to us from a position on the staff of another organization controlled entirely by a small, self-perpetuating Board of Directors, rather than a member-controlled organization.
Even the best intentions of leaders and experts are no substitute for internal democracy. Different bicyclists have different ideas about what needs to be done to improve conditions for bicycling in our city. The interests of our members, and our political credibility as a grassroots organization, would best be served by restoring a greater role for members in initiating, determining, and carrying out our political program.
I decided to run for the Board of Directors after trying unsuccessfully to make concrete proposals for SFBC activities and policy positions, and being rebuffed or -- perhaps worse -- met with complete incomprehension as to why a member would be making proposals for what our organization should be doing in the name of our members.
Elections for the Board of Directors are the only vestige of internal democracy in the governance of our "coalition". But there hasn't been a contested Board election in many years, and the slate of candidates nominated by the incumbent Board has always been been elected.
I was the only candidate who chose to run this year despite not being endorsed by the incumbent Board members. In announcing my candidacy, I said that I would bring to the Board of Directors 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. (There's more about why I ran for the Board here.)
This is neither a dispute over specific policies or decisions nor, so far as I know, a personal conflict. I've been a member and supporter of the SFBC for almost 20 years, and I ran for the Board because I care about the future of our organization. Yet rather than being welcomed as an attempt to address the causes of our loss of membership, to better connect the SFBC and our advocacy positions to our grassroots base, or to develop internal processes for coping with the growing diversity of opinions within our membership, my candidacy was treated by the staff and the incumbent Board members as a hostile threat to the organization.
SFBC membership numbers haven't been included in annual reports to members. I discovered the membership decline when I was finally provided -- after the scheduled election was over -- with the list of members eligible to vote in the election for the SFBC Board of Directors.
The SFBC Bylaws and California law provide specific procedures for access to the membership list, but the staff and the current Board of Directors -- including the members of the Board running for re-election -- flatly refused to comply with our own rules or state law, or to provide any alternate way for candidates or other members to communicate with each other, until after the scheduled election was over.
After the scheduled election period was over, voting was extended for another week, without warning. Many members received no notice at all of this extended voting period, and most members were sent notice of the extended voting only after it was underway, despite our Bylaws requiring 30-days advance notice to all members of election dates.
More than two months after the close of voting, the SFBC Board and staff are still refusing to tell me how many votes I or any of the Board-endorsed candidates received. But I have finally been told that, although the Board has not yet met to consider whether the election was valid, the slate nominated by the incumbents (including those members running for re-election) have all been deemed elected.
The November 2014 voting for the SFBC Board of Directors was irrevocably tainted by (1) the violations of the SFBC Bylaws and state law in denying me access to the membership list or any alternate way of communicating with fellow members about my candidacy until after the scheduled election was over, and (2) the violation of the Bylaws in extending the voting without giving all members 30 days notice. This voting did not constitute a valid election. The Board of Directors should schedule new voting, in accordance with our Bylaws. And the number of votes received by each candidate should, of course, be disclosed to all candidates and members.
More fundamentally, the SFBC needs to revive, or create anew, mechanisms for effective participatory and democratic internal discussion, debate, and decision-making, so that our policy advocacy positions and program of activities genuinely reflect the full diversity of opinions of an increasing diverse (and hopefully once again growing) membership.
The next SFBC Board of Directors meeting is scheduled for Tuesday, February 24th, from 6:30-8:30 pm. at the SFBC office, 833 Market St., 10th floor. Board meetings are open to SFBC members, and I encourage you to attend. You can also e-mail the Board at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Tell SFBC Board members that they need to schedule new, proper voting to elect the new Board. Tell the Board that internal democracy is vital to our growth and our ability to speak for the diversity of SF bicyclists.
And consider nominating yourself or other SFBC members for the Board of Directors. You can nominate yourself or any other SFBC member in good standing by sending an e-mail message to email@example.com.
I look forward to working with you and all other SFBC members to revitalize and re-democratize the SFBC as a voice for all San Francisco bicyclists.
Feel free to contact me with your ideas, feedback, questions, concerns, criticism, support, or suggestions.
1130 Treat Ave.