COOPERATIVES – Is control slipping away from the members?

by / No Comments / March 19, 2018

by Joel Schulz – Publisher

With election season upon us for the Calgary Cooperative Association Limited, I decided to do some background research into the operation of cooperative societies at the board level. In the past couple of months, I have become increasingly aware that nominating and electing directors to cooperatives might possibly be a process that is slipping away from the members of these organizations with the directors themselves putting themselves in control. I will be brief here and enlarge upon the topic, as my research expands. Thus, this article is limited to a study of Mountain Equipment Co-operative (MEC) and Calgary Cooperative Association Ltd. (Calgary COOP) Most of what is written about MEC I have taken from an article written by Sean Silcoff and Marina Strauss, published on March 25, 2017 by the Globe and Mail. Calgary COOP information was collected by me personally.

MEC has adopted a process that severely limits the ability of its members to seek a seat on the board of directors or to even submit resolutions to the membership for approval. From the Globe and Mail – “Over the past four years, the board of MEC has made it increasingly tough for members to put their names and resolutions to a vote by their peers in order to set the direction for the 44-year-old institution. The board has so tightened the rules that even former chairman Anders Ourom, a nine-year board veteran, was deemed unqualified to stand for election three years ago.”

What the Board of Directors of MEC has done, keeping in mind that it is a member driven and member founded cooperative, is demand that anybody seeking office has extensive executive experience and a university degree. Since the board of directors is the chief policy body, the membership in general has lost its voice because the board usurped that right by limiting whom they wanted to join them. Does an organization cease to be a cooperative when the board decides who has a voice and who does not? Cooperatives were founded a few centuries back as a model of democratic process in its purest form. No one member could have greater privilege over another when deciding organizational direction. Decisions were not qualified by background. I have to ask, what the hell happened at MEC? It is not a corporation where the board normally has control over who can join them. It is an organization of members, each with, supposedly, and equal say.

Equally troubling is a process that has been adopted by Calgary COOP in the past five or so years, one that sees the board of directors recommending which candidates to the board they should vote for. Even the ballots have “recommended” by the candidates name. Any member, unlike MEC, can still run. However, if they do not get recommended, it is as if they no longer have an equal opportunity to seek office thereby compromising democratic process.

In perusing the by-laws of Calgary Cooperative Association Ltd., there is no process authorizing the board to undertake selecting recommended candidates. It is if it is an arbitrary decision by them.

The process involves board candidates submitting their nomination packages to Grant Thornton, accountants for Calgary CO-OP, in what would, on the surface, seemingly be construed as an impartial process. This is anything but true. The Board of Directors has retained the services of an outside consultant who then hand picks the candidates, on their behalf, which the board then presents to the members of the Calgary CO-OP as their recommendations as to whom they wish to join them.

The membership has no input nor say in this process. On the Calgary CO-OP Board of Directors website the board is attempting to influence the membership’s voting decision by listing the candidates they recommend. Even the ballots have the word “recommended” beside the board’s personal picks. That would be like current governments, be they municipal, provincial or federal, telling the voters on the ballots whom they should vote for. If Elections Canada or Elections Alberta allowed this, they would end up in court for violations of the respective Elections Acts.

One candidate in this year’s Calgary COOP election to the board of directors is a former Chairman of the Board. This year he is not a recommended candidate. This draws a similar parallel of MEC’s board disqualifying one of their former chairpersons.

Cooperatives are supposed to be run and controlled by members. I see this scenario of member rights being curtailed as very non-democratic and it absolutely must stop.

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