Credit union’s democratic member voting is a critical feature of cooperative design.
However the practice of democracy can become a charade if those in control fail to follow long standing practices to make it a reality.
A Board Controlling Their Re-election
At December 2021 yearend Virginia Credit Union (VACU) reported $5.0 billion in assets with 310,000 members, 22 branches and 731 employees. The net worth ratio was 9.8%.
In yesterday’s post I shared the member Notice from my credit union’s annual meeting and the fact there would be no voting for four open board seats. The number of nominations equals the number of vacancies.
Then I received this email from a credit union member about the board of VACU trying to control their own reappointment. And members’ response.
“Are you aware of this? [link] It appears that VACU needs a mechanism for members’ self-nomination for board elections. Find that hard to believe but VACU is a state-chartered CU and the VA credit union act gives them much discretion.
“Although the nominating committee can send forward more than one candidate for each board vacancy, if they don’t, then nominations from the floor are not allowed and the vote at the meeting shall be by voice vote – which precludes any write-in votes!
“Under any circumstances, if only the uncontested nominees selected by the board appointed nominating committee are eligible to run…it ain’t right…talk about the destruction of cooperative principles?!?!?.
“The fix is definitely in!”
We Own VACU
The link in the email is to a petition in which four members of VACU state their interest in serving on the board. They describe their efforts as follows:
The Virginia Credit Union Board is trying to rig their election so that YOU lose your right to vote for four amazing community leaders who are running for the board.
Credit unions are financial cooperatives. They are owned equally by the members with a democratically elected board of directors – one member, one vote. The Virginia Credit Union (VACU) is a Community Development Finance Institution (CDFI) with a responsibility to invest federal dollars alongside private sector capital in the nation’s most distressed communities.
Four outstanding Richmond community leaders and VACU member-owners filed paperwork by last year’s deadline to run for the board in the March 23rd elections — Frank Moseley, Kati Hornung, Richard Walker, and Tori Jones — to bring a different direction, a different relationship with the Richmond community, and accountability for VACU’s atrocious pandemic response to an out-of-touch board of directors that needs all three.
VACU’s board has not only refused to allow their names on the ballot, it didn’t bother to interview or respond to the candidates. Instead the board is planning to hold a Soviet-style election at our annual member meeting on March 23rd, with three board-chosen candidates running unopposed for three seats. You can read the full story here, and learn more about the candidates here.
Tell VACU this is not democratic ownership and we will fight for our voting rights at the credit union the same as anywhere else they are under attack.
A longer post called We Own VACU provides the back story of their efforts. They show the board chair appointed the nominating committee, which in turn nominated the chair as one of the candidates for the four open seats.
Complaint Filed with NCUA
Where can members go if their efforts are denied? Who is to call a foul on those in charge if they do not follow their own rules?
The members appealed to NCUA. Yesterday they filed a formal complaint which can be read in full. The complaint gives the history of their attempts to be nominated starting in September 2021 and the repeated no responses or rebuffs by the board.
They attach their documentation and ask NCUA to vacate the “sham election scheduled for March 23 and require a new election with all four names included on the ballot.”
However their most important request is that NCUA make a policy statement declaring that:
No credit unions in the country will be permitted to remove member owner oversight, participation in governance, or democratic control, thereby removing the temptation of misguided boards to try.
NCUA has published many such interpretations of acceptable bylaw implementation such as this:
- Nomination procedures: Under all options under this Article, the nominating committee must widely publicize the call for nominations to all members by any medium. This requirement can be satisfied by publicizing the information to a large audience, whether by newsletter, email, or any other satisfactory medium that reaches as many members as possible. The NCUA emphasizes that member participation is important during an election, and FCUs must make sure that members are aware of the nomination process. (emphasis added)
But in practice the Agency has shown no interest in member rights even when confronted with documented evidence of board manipulation of voting and annual meeting misconduct. A prime example is the denial of member rights in the Cornerstone Credit Union merger with Belco Community Credit Union.
As a result member participation in annual elections is increasingly a shadow exercise with no substance. With more virtual annual meetings, the process becomes even more controlled.
As members are removed from the governance process, board and management are free to follow whatever course they alone believe is in the members’ interest. Even when this means giving up sound charters via merger or using member’s collective reserves to buy troubled banks.
Regulatory Leadership or Continued Neglect?
Chairman Harper in last week’s GAC address gave this view of his regulatory approach:
One of my favorite quotes by Molly Ivin’s reads: “I think government is a tool, like a hammer. You can use a hammer to build with or you can use a hammer to destroy with. Whether government is good or bad depends on what you use it for and how well you use it.
He then says how he intends to use his regulatory hammer as Chairman:
Since joining the Board, I have focused on strengthening the NCUA’s consumer financial protection and fair lending resources. Given the consumer compliance examination program for comparably sized community banks, our program’s scope is insufficient, especially for those credit unions between $1 billion and $10 billion in assets. We should be doing more, and we can do more.
I understand this is not a popular opinion in this room. Many within the industry maintain that the NCUA should primarily focus on its safety-and-soundness mission or that the agency has not demonstrated a significant rationale for a stronger consumer compliance program.
Some also contend that the cooperative nature of credit unions prevents their lending practices from being discriminatory because their primary purpose is to serve their members’ needs. However, the logic that credit unions do not discriminate because they are owned by their members is a dangerous myth and one that should end.
Confusing Consumers with Member-Owners
Chairman Harper wants to protect consumers but not coop member-owners who are his primary responsibility. The GAC comment suggests he has yet to grasp what it means to regulate cooperatives with their system of member governance.
The VACU members’ complaint and the ever-spreading practice of board’s ignoring the critical role of member’s franchise role will demonstrate whether the NCUA Board believes in member rights—or just wants credit unions to see their owners as only consumers.
The VACU members requested a straight forward policy statement that all credit unions could embrace. It’s much shorter than a GAC speech. It doesn’t require a hammer. Just a reminder of who credit unions are.
I bet such a statement, recognizing members’ governance role, would also enhance whatever shortcomings there might be in consumer compliance!