Staff Lists, Contributions and Democratic Varieties

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From Greg Guma, Pacifica Foundation Executive Director
Received August 16, 2007

Dear PNB,

My apology for the delay in my response to recent debates and requests regarding election and membership matters. Rather than reply in haste, I wanted to review the range of opinion, do some research, and consider the appropriate response. Clearly, there is more than one issue on the table, and I won't get to all of them here.

I also apologize for the length of what follows, but this is not a simple matter.

1. List Integrity

It's an understatement to say that concerns about the integrity and legitimacy of staff and listener lists have been expressed for several years. A number of people have argued that these issues have been ignored, or at least left unresolved. Clearly, there have been problems verifying the basis for names being included on unpaid staff lists. We are also being told that some contributors may not be added to the listener rolls, and there has recently been a controversial attempt to have some member contributions forwarded to an individual before being delivered to the station.

On the question of staff lists, the conflict between the Bylaws definition of staff members and the definitions used by unpaid staff groups are at the center of the debate. A complicating factor is that the Bylaws are ambiguous on the question of responsibility for certifying the integrity of the database from which the election rolls are created. Clearly, the Foundation has a responsibility to know who works for it, whether paid or unpaid. In this regard, the PNB has passed several resolutions mandating the creating and monthly updating of such lists. However, the requirement has not been met at all stations.

Elections supervisors can evaluate management's diligence in gathering accurate information, maintaining updated and accurate lists, and publishing them. But when unpaid staff organizations create staff lists, there must be a way for management to verify the basis for the names on the lists.

Even if standards for membership are allowed to vary – for example, 30 hours in 3 months preceding the close date (for stations without recognized unpaid staff organizations), or 30 hours in any three consecutive months during the year preceding an election close date – recognition of the staff organization remains at issue, as we are currently seeing at KPFA. But even when recognition is not questioned, management needs standards by which it can validate any staff list's criteria.

In the past, elections supervisors have had to choose between accepting unverified lists and refusing to validate elections. It’s not a tenable choice. But if the lists don’t become more verifiable, there may well be a legal challenge, possibly in the form of an injunction against a local election.

The primary difference between lists provided by unpaid staff groups and those created by management is the criteria for time worked. The Bylaws require unpaid staff to have put in 30 hours in 3 months preceding the close date; unpaid staff organizations use different criteria. In my opinion, the goal should be for unpaid staff groups to bring their criteria into line with the bylaws. But whatever the solution, the hours and work need to be verifiable and someone needs to sign off. Without that, there will be continual charges of padding, omissions and other practices that people will no doubt label as “corruption.” The goal should be to avoid what could become a “constitutional” crisis.

2. Listener Contributions

A recent e-mail privately distributed by Steve Brown, along with the responses to it, underlines how volatile the question of voting rights has become. In this case, the focus is listener contributions and eligibility. Stripping away the personal references, the charge raised is that some people aren’t getting ballots despite attempts to make contributions. Like the questions being raised about unpaid staff eligibility, this isn’t a new complaint. As Wendy Schroell notes, in past elections people have made donations to become members, not received a ballot, and subsequently found that their contribution wasn’t recorded.

Having checks sent to an individual is not a real solution for the underlying problem, but neither should Pacifica ignore the contention that some contributions are being lost. This isn’t meant as an endorsement of accusations made against individuals or of any assumptions about motivations. It is simply an argument that it would be short-sighted to sweep aside such a concern because it comes from a controversial source. Like any other charge, it deserves a reasonable, timely and affordable investigation.

As far as Steve’s attempt to have contributions sent to a personal address before delivery to the station is concerned, I consider the issue unresolved at this point. Although I don’t vote in various stations elections, I have personally been solicited for contributions at events and provided checks to individuals – both Board and Staff – that were subsequently passed on to stations. While I have the greatest respect for Dan, his e-mail does not have the force of law, a management decision, or a Board decision. In reviewing his initial response, he did not comment on whether Steve’s action warranted disciplinary action. Rather, he opined that there was “potential” for misuse and mishandling of membership funds, and thus told Steve to write to people and say he was “incorrect” to urge them to send their fees to him. What I did not see was a legal rational for that opinion. While the alternative of using certified or registered mail is certainly fine (though not foolproof), there is not only one right way to handle a contribution. Major donations are often solicited in person and subsequently delivered to organizations. Memberships are obtained at public events by various people and hand-delivered to stations. I will need a more solid legal rationale and more input from the community before I distribute "orders" to Board members or instruct a station to run a cart.

The main problem, in my view, is not how money and memberships reach the station, but the ongoing antagonism between “warring” groups and individuals at various stations. Steve Brown charges staff and political rivals with suppressing the vote, and Lisa Davis accuses Steve of trying to manipulate station membership. Chandra Hauptman calls for a detailed audit, and Ray LaForest calls her motivations biased. Clearly, we have a political dispute here, not something that can be easily disposed of by issuing an edict and putting a cart on the air. What would such a cart say? How would the public airing of a procedural dispute -- or the public criticism of an LSB member -- increase confidence in the integrity of Pacifica's elections?

As I tried to explain in July, the willingness to compromise is essential if Pacifica’s democracy is going to function. What we are hearing is charges about fair play. If the essence of the concerns is allowed to be lost due to personal enmity of factional division, the resulting disunity could lead to paralysis. Even before the nomination period has ended, there are charges about fraudulent conduct, vote manipulation, and unethical behavior, along with the suggestion that harsh discipline is in order. But if people who question elements of the election process are sanctioned – or worse, disenfranchised – as a consequence of making complaints, the legitimacy of the organization’s elections will be further undermined.

3. Voting and Democratic Varieties

I understand that Board members are tired of hearing my criticisms of Pacifica’s current governance structure. On the other hand, members also want problems growing from that structure to be addressed. In order to do that, we need some basic agreement about nature of the problem – not simply that the “other side” is dishonest or racist. For what it’s worth, one of my conclusions is that the current structure and process encourage competition rather than cooperation.

Therefore, a viable solution should 1) encourage a greater willingness on the part of all to cooperate – to actively seek common ground, 2) create an election process that rewards constructive ideas rather than negative campaigns, and 3) move Pacifica toward a revised structure that balances democracy (in this case, voting people onto Boards) with increased effectiveness (in part, by recruiting some appointed Board members who have needed skills but aren’t so engaged in Pacifica’s internal political struggles). I know full well that the latter suggestion will be very controversial. For now, I will only remind everyone that just because a group is elected, that doesn't always mean it makes the best or even the right decisions.

It is important to keep in mind that voting is no magic bullet. It is a mediated form of political engagement, and can sometimes divert energy away from more effective forms of political and social action. Representative democracy isn’t participatory democracy. I often hear calls for more people to be consulted in decision-making processes, yet the current structure rewards exclusive, majoritarian alliances of those who are elected.

Pacifica may want to seriously consider an alternative model. One example is some form of open-source governance, an emerging approach that allows policy development to benefit from the collected wisdom of a whole community. This has been called a post-national governing structure. In Pacifica’s case, that would mean post-station, since stations are the “nations” in Pacifica’s world. In an open-source model, policy-setting would be de-coupled from station management. A small step in this direction would be to maintain all policies – local, national, financial, etc. – in one accessible public registry and update it regularly.

The current approach at Pacifica seems to be, in part, a form of grassroots democracy. In this model, as much decision-making authority as possible is granted to the lower geographic level of organization. It sounds fine, but it means that in practice power resides with local institutions – stations – not with individuals. In contrast, participatory systems allow people equal access to decision-making regardless of their standing in a local chapter or community. The question here is who and what Pacifica seeks to empower. Shouldn’t people who support Pacifica in ways other than working at or contributing to a sister station be allowed to participate in important decisions? From the station point of view, however, they are sometimes viewed as outsiders; at the very least, they are not “members.”

In short, claiming to have a democratic structure doesn’t end the discussion. What kind do we actually have, what kind does the community actually want, and what kind will work?

4. Relevant Democratic Models (here are 11, but there are more)

Grassroots – As I mentioned, this gives decentralized units the authority to make local level, binding decisions. We have elements of this, but there’s a tension with a more hierarchical structure that asserts centralized power in areas such as budget control.

Workplace – This form emerged as a response to top-down management hierarchy, and often uses lateral approaches like arbitration when problems arise. These days it is usually implemented in some compromise form. But an important element is that important decisions like centralization and management change only happen by request or with overwhelming majority acceptance, and work teams retain the power to resist change. Putting staff on Boards is a bow to this form, but creates some problems, e.g. the perception of conflict of interest.

Parliamentary – In this system, the executive branch is typically a cabinet, headed by an individual who is initially elected to the legislature. It’s something to consider, since someone who rose to the top would very likely have a strong working coalition. However, this would also lead Pacifica further in the direction of becoming a political movement and creating a “government,” perhaps distracting from its essential media purposes.

Jacksonian – This basically means a strong executive branch that asserts itself over the legislative body. Few in Pacifica want this, although there is a sentiment that, once empowered by the legislative branch, the executive should plow ahead. In my experience, some Pacificans do want a strong executive – until that person does something with which they disagree.

Democratic Centralism – In practice, this means debating things and taking a vote. But once the vote has happened, everyone is supposed to follow the decision in public. That’s not likely to work in Pacifica, but some groups who participate and have influence do tend toward such a disciplined approach.

Electronic – Some institutions are using technology to enhance the democratic process. Pacifica is attempting to do this to some extent, but it’s certainly not a panacea and technology can certainly be misused.

Participatory – Here the focus is on consensus decision making and greater representation for those who get involved. The advantage is that people have access regardless of their local “standing.” But it requires a lot of information if the process is going to wortk, and therefore, use of technology that empowers.

Deliberative – This means hearing out every alternative, from every direction, with enough time to do the research. It sounds great and we sometimes try to apply it, but it has some serious limitations for a media organization in which quick reactions in response to unpleasant but unavoidable market forces are needed.

Multi-Party/Faction – This approach gives power to large blocs. The trouble is that they usually can't agree on overarching principles. This appears to be a direction in which the current structure is leading the organization.

Representative – This type of democracy is indirect, and power is held by representatives. This is clearly an element of Pacifica’s approach, combined with some grassroots, deliberative, and multiparty tendencies.

Radical/Dialogic – This approach emphasizes nurturing and tolerating difference and dissent in decision-making. The idea is that oppressive power relations should be out in the open, re-negotiated, and changed. But it can be difficult -- or inefficient -- to make decisions in a group while being tolerant and accepting of dissent and antagonistic views. And it will probably be tough for those making the decisions to acknowledge existing oppressive power relationships. Still, a bit of this could be refreshing.

Alone, any one of these approaches has limitations, but elements of several – along with incentives for cooperation and some appointed Board members -- might be combined in a revised and improved model. In the meantime, Pacifica needs to look at its basic purposes and move away from bureaucratic or rigid responses to disputes, fueled by a structure that is incomplete, inefficient, frustrating, and the result of a tentative political compromise that may not hold much longer.

Greg Guma

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Executive Director
Pacifica Foundation

Radio with conscience for 58 years