San Francisco Bicycle Coalition Faces Contested Board Election

San Francisco has witnessed a rapid growth in bike commuting under SFBC's watch. Image: Market Street, SF. By Melanie Curry/Streetsblog
San Francisco has witnessed a rapid growth in bike commuting under SFBC’s watch. Image: Market Street, SF. By Melanie Curry/Streetsblog

UPDATE: This post has been edited to clarify a point about the SFBC board’s actions. Please see note at end.

For the first time in its history, the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition, which has grown to become one of the city’s most active and effective advocacy organizations, is facing a contested election for its board.

Depending whom you talk to, the issues are member’s privacy vs. members voting rights, progressive vs. neoliberal politics, whether the board should become professional or stick to its grassroots tradition, or whether diversity and equity belong at the core bike advocacy.

The conflict has created a face-off between two opposing candidate slates for the seven board seats up for election this year, giving members what looks like a stark choice between business as usual and a takeover by a new board.

Then, in the midst of it all, Executive Director Noah Budnick announced his resignation after only eight months on the job.

It all looks a little dicey for the SFBC, which since the 1990s has grown its membership tremendously while learning to navigate city politics to help change the way San Francisco thinks and talks about bicycles.

But looks can be deceiving.

Budnick’s resignation may not have anything to do with the current board turmoil. Budnick has been circumspect about his reasons, and when asked has referred only to his coming status as a foster parent.

The stark choice between two opposing slates is not mandatory. Members will vote for individuals, not necessarily for one full slate over the other. Whichever candidates are elected will have to find a way to work with current board members.

Proposed Bylaw Change

The roots of the current situation go back a few years, and bubbled to a simmer this summer when the current board proposed a change in the bylaws that would have redefined membership. The existing board reasoned it was necessary to keep members’ contact information private. The change would have, among other things, eliminated members’ voting rights, with future board members instead being appointed by existing ones.

To members of the board, that would not have been dramatically different from the way past board elections have been run. Board elections at SFBC have traditionally involved “a painstaking process,” in the words of Amandeep Jawa, a current board member who is not up for reelection this year. Every year, half of the board seats are open for election by members. Some of the current members seek reelection, in addition to which the board recruits new members and interviews them. In past elections, the board has then endorsed the same number of people as open seats, and then put it to a vote by the members.

“Above and beyond that,” said Jawa, “anybody can run for the board. But most years there’s just the board-endorsed candidates—in part because it’s a lot of work, and it’s a thankless job.”

“Every year we struggle to get a quorum of votes, because our membership thinks things are going well,” he said. “The board members have to work our tails off to recruit candidates, and then work our tails off to get people to vote.”

The board endorsement process caused problems last year, however, when a member who wanted to run for the board did not get an endorsement, and was not satisfied with the 150 words he was given to explain his candidacy. His request for the right to communicate with SFBC members caused confusion and upset when the board opted* to provide him with member contact information, and some members objected to receiving emails from him.

The board decided that the solution was to change the bylaws so they wouldn’t be forced to give out member contact information—and at the same time redefine the board to be a self-appointed, rather than elected, board.

But to some members, the idea of not having a say in the board election was fundamentally anti-democratic. Others protested that the vote was conducted badly, and that the consequences of the proposed bylaw change were not clearly explained in voting materials. Several members got together and formed Save SF Bike to formally protest the election.

Meanwhile the SFBC board certified the results of the voting, which had passed the proposals. Save SF Bike threatened legal action, and the board subsequently found flaws in the way it had conducted the election and rescinded it.

In the end, the bylaws remained unchanged, so the annual election for board members is taking place as usual. But this time the usual board-endorsed slate is faced with an opposition slate, all of whom are endorsed by Save SF Bike.

Opposing Slates

So what’s at stake? For some, the struggle is a microcosmic reflection of San Francisco politics, pitting neoliberals pushing for a professional organization against progressives who want to return to the SFBC’s grassroots tradition.

But it’s never that simple.

Andy Thornley is a long-time SFBC staffer and a candidate on the board-endorsed slate, although he supports members of both slates and says that he’d be happy if any one of the candidates won. “I honestly think this is a great thing,” he said last week. “How wonderful that we have fifteen people interesting in being on the bike coalition’s board!”

For him, the timing of all of this is excellent. The SFBC has around 10,000 members, slightly down from a peak of about 13,000 a few years ago, and a robust discussion around how the organization should move forward is due. Thornley says he is committed to helping make this happen when the SFBC holds its strategic planning process next year.

There are many reasons Thornley was endorsed by current board members, even though he spoke up over the summer about the bylaw election irregularities. For one, he has had experience with an organization whose board transitioned from a member-elected one to an appointed one: he was on the board of the Transportation and Land Use Coalition when it became TransForm.

“That led to big changes” and allowed TransForm to grow into a different kind of organization, he said. The SFBC is going through a similar process. Board members, said Thornley, work hard for no pay, and “the organization needs a steady, smart governing body. For many years now, the board has been consciously cultivating its own composition, intentionally developing it so the board is well rounded, has the right competencies, and—frankly—gets along with each other.”

For some, however, the idea of eliminating member voting rights strikes at the heart of a grassroots organization that is in danger of losing the connection with its members. “SFBC is moving more towards a professional model,” said Jeremy Pollock, a candidate on the Save SF Bike slate and a legislative aide to Supervisor John Avalos. “The board has been establishing good working relationships with city staff, which is great. But our slate is focusing on the grassroots, on diversifying the bike coalition and broadening our outreach with a social justice focus, reaching out to low-income communities of color to bring them into bike coalition.”

Equity and Diversity

“We don’t want to take the bike coalition away from its core focus on biking,” said Pollock, “but to work with other advocacy groups, including pedestrian, transit, seniors, and disability advocates. These are our natural allies. Our slate would be able to strengthen those alliances. And we can expand the geographic, class, and ethnic diversity of the bike coalition.”

The role of equity and diversity in bike advocacy is not just a local one, nor is it recent, although it is only recently being met head-on across the nation. The League of American Bicyclists recently faced questions about the lack of transparency in the process of hiring its new executive director. In October, The Alliance for Biking and Walking released its “The State of the Movement” report [PDF], which showed that nationally little progress has been made in recruiting advocates who can identify with the experience of the majority of people who bike—that is, low-income people of color. And at the recent California Bike Summit, which was organized around the theme of equity, LACBC executive director Tamika Butler gave a devastating keynote speech about the contradictions faced by people of color who end up representing the “diversity” factor in advocacy groups.

Thornley acknowledges that this issue is not new. “It’s not just the last decade or two—it’s the unfortunate heritage of bike advocacy,” he says. “Any monkey can organize white, well-educated males who have the time to go to meetings. The question is, how do you get beyond just being an organization that already has the support of the easy-to-organize groups, and reach out to people who have other, more important issues on their list?”

The two organizations that have endorsed candidate slates—Save SF Bike and Love SFBC, which is made up of current board members—have published their platforms online.

The Save SF Bike platform includes plans to “rebuild member trust, reinvigorate member involvement, and expand and diversify membership,” in addition to continuing the good work SFBC has been doing for many years.

The Love SFBC platform emphasizes a focus on “what the membership really wants, not personal agendas.” It also refers to a need to “keep the Board focused on enabling staff, not micromanaging them or taking them in an overly political direction.”

Both of those statements are aimed at the Save SF Bike slate, but they are written in code. Because the Save SF Bike candidates have been active in social justice issues like housing and organizing in communities of color, the Love SFBC statements could easily be read as saying they don’t want SFBC to be distracted by discussions about racism.

Jeremy Pollock responded to the Love SFBC platform by pointing out that helping develop high-level strategy and policy goals is an important role for nonprofit boards. “It’s totally appropriate for [Save SF Bike] to say we want to prioritize diversifying the SFBC and reinvigorating member involvement,” he wrote in an email to Streetsblog. “We fully understand board members do not get involved in staff-level work. All of our candidates have years of experience as nonprofit board members and/or staffers. We’re all very familiar with the board-management-staff dynamics.”

Where to Now?

No matter who gets elected, the board will face two immediate tasks: finding a new executive director and developing a new strategic plan. All of the questions and issues discussed here are likely to come into play during both of those processes. The question is, can the SFBC be both a professional organization and one that encourages meaningful grassroots involvement? It can, but it will be a challenge.

Andy Thornley is excited about the possibilities. “Bike advocacy gets people riled up,” he said. “If people didn’t have passionate feelings about biking in the city, they wouldn’t join the SFBC.” The conversation around the board election, he believes, “is not inordinately poisonous or vicious. This is San Francisco,” he says. “SFBC swims in the ocean of passionate electoral politics, but that’s not really what’s happening. This isn’t tearing apart the organization.”

“At the bike coalition we are really, really blessed that we have such a passionate membership,” said boardmember Jawa. “That means lots of great things for us. In San Francisco policy and politics, we are a respected player at the table. That all comes from the strength of our membership.”

Save SF Bike candidate Pollock believes that the election “is a great opportunity for all of us to start talking about our priorities for the Bike Coalition.”

More information about the candidates, their interests, and the slates’ agendas can be found on their websites at Save SF Bike and Love SFBC.

Voting, which is open only to current SFBC members, continues until the end of the month. There will be an opportunity to hear directly from the candidates at SFBC’s annual membership party and open house on December 10.

*SFBC board member Amandeep Jawa objected to the use of the word “opted” here. Because the privacy issue has been such a big part of this conflict, for the sake of clarification it’s worth exploring in a little more detail.

The board maintains that its legal team advised that it had no choice in the matter of whether to provide member contact information when it was requested.

According to the law, the board could offer alternatives rather than just hand over member contact lists. And it did that: the board offered to add information about the candidate’s website to his official campaign statement. He did not accept that offer in lieu of directly contacting members, and because there was a tight deadline to respond to his request, there was no time to fully explore other alternatives.

“In the end, it comes down to the fact that we offered him an alternative that we thought was better than giving him the list,” said Jawa. It was “a good faith alternative that would involve the least disruption or privacy problems for our members. When he turned it down, there was no time to explore an option B.”

The option of just forwarding emails to members for him was not offered, said Jawa, because the board felt it would then have to do the same for all the other candidates. However, in the end, if any other candidate had requested the member contact list, they would have been in the same boat.

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