Supervisor of Pacifica elections points to flaws in system

High cost, low participation in process that is ‘factionalizing’

By Mike Janssen

The elections supervisor for the boards of Pacifica’s five radio stations has recommended that the network revamp its process for selecting board members because the current system is “too costly, time consuming, factionalized and factionalizing.”

In a report on the latest round of elections, which concluded in January several months behind schedule, Pacifica National Elections Supervisor Terry Bouricius described numerous flaws in a process that’s been in effect for nearly a decade.

Pacifica’s elections favor “ego-driven individuals,” he wrote, and bring in votes from roughly 10 percent of the total membership of the five stations. The small percentage of those who do vote are likely not representative of the whole.

In addition, station staffers complain that on-air programming required for the elections is unpopular with listeners; stations must broadcast statements by local candidates and call-in shows featuring the candidates. The stations’ donor records are not adequately maintained to support the election process, Bouricius wrote.

And Pacifica had trouble making timely payments to him, its local election supervisors and the outside vendor that handled balloting. The low pay and financial difficulties result in high turnover among local supervisors from election to election.

In sum, “elections are simply not the appropriate democratic tool for Pacifica to use to select Local Station Boards from among its diverse listener membership,” Bouricius wrote.

The network implemented the elections starting in 2004, after a protracted legal battle between factions of its leadership resulted in new bylaws. Under the bylaws, donors to the network’s stations can vote in elections of Local Station Boards, which are held in two out of every three years. The LSBs in turn appoint members to the Pacifica National Board, which governs the entire network.

The first round of elections immediately prompted concerns that the process would be too expensive to maintain long-term. Eight years later, board members and onlookers continue to share that worry, yet the PNB appears to be no closer to changing the process.

Meanwhile, another round of elections is scheduled to start in June.

In fiscal year 2011, Pacifica spent $125,776 on board meetings and elections, according to financial documents. That was down from the year before, when it spent $387,023.

But even the lower price tag offered little relief, as the network’s finances have become only more precarious over time. In April 2012, Arlene Englehardt, then Pacifica’s executive director, suggested during a PNB meeting that the network simply not hold the elections then looming. She cited the unexpected expense of $200,000 to repair equipment at KPFT, Pacifica’s Houston station, and a cost of at least that much to help WPFW in Washington, D.C., move to new headquarters. (The station has yet to move.)

The Pacifica stations were also failing to meet their fundraising goals. Fighting a lawsuit over violations of its bylaws would probably be less expensive for Pacifica than holding the elections, Englehardt said.

Some Pacifica National Board members continue to believe that the elections are inefficient and costly, says Bill Crosier, outgoing vice chair. But the bylaws and the complexity of changing them are barriers to implementing an improved system, he says.

Some board members have suggested holding elections less often and reducing the size of the National Board, which consists of 22 members. They’ve also recommended moving to an online balloting system to save money. But others argued that Web-based elections would disenfranchise voters who lack computers.

In his report, Bouricius recommended that Pacifica send donors postcards with passwords for voting online during the next election. The postcards could offer optional paper ballots and printed booklets of candidate information.

In the longer term, the elections supervisor suggested, the network could move to a system under which it would appoint “listener councils” designed to represent the diversity of each station’s membership. These councils would then appoint the Local Station Boards.

In the absence of that change or any other sweeping revision, the key question may be whether Pacifica’s funds can outlast its internal disagreements.

“A lot of people want changes,” Crosier said, “but it’s hard to get people to agree to what the changes might be.”

Questions, comments, tips? mike@mikejanssen.net
This article was originally published in Current Feb. 11, 2013.

Related story

The Pacifica National Board adopted a policy barring individuals who have clashed with the network’s leadership from serving on Local Station Boards.

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