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Pacifica radio Executive Director: we are out of money for elections

Train wreck at MontparnasseIn a special meeting of the Pacifica National Board held on Thursday, April 26, Pacifica Executive Director Arlene Engelhardt dropped this long overdue bombshell.

“I just am very concerned where we are going to come up with a quarter of a million dollars to run an election this year,” she told the Board. This is a reference to the nearly annual elections that the five listener supported station network conducts, in which which subscribers and station staff pick delegates for their respective 24 member Local Station Boards, who in turn send representatives to the 22 member Pacifica National Board.

Engelhardt continued:

“Even if we’re sued for not having an election, I don’t think that the suit costs would run nearly that high. I think that we need to take some drastic measures. We’ve been working in this office to try to figure out what kind of cuts we can make in every division of the network. We’ve absolutely got to do some things to begin to cover some of our past expenses. And to cover the current expenses as they come up. And we’re not doing that. And to add a quarter million dollars to it is to add a very, for lack of a better word, I’m going to say scary proposition.”

“I totally believe in being a democratic organization. And I totally support the fact that we need to have elected board members and so forth. I think we could use some by-laws changes on some of that to perhaps make it a little less expensive and a little more workable. But those aren’t going to happen in time for this year’s election. So that’s where I’m coming from.”

During the telephone conference, board members discussed Engelhardt’s concerns. Several debated transitioning from the paper ballots that are sent to subscribers to an online system to cut the huge mailing costs. One questioned the assertion that Pacifica could not afford 250k, asking what unexpected expenses might have prompted this development. To which PNB Board member Alex Steinberg responded:

“We just got an unexpected expense of $300,000 from the Houston station [KPFT], due to the problems they’re having with their transmitter. There’s also some unexpected expenses at KPFK, in addition to some serious serious issues with WPFW’s move. We are in an economic crisis, there’s no question about it. I really think we should consider suspending or canceling these elections. I understand that it is contrary to the by-laws and contrary to our deep feelings for a democratic structure and all that, but it does seem like an incredible expense when we are faced with a financial emergency. Can we get an opinion from our legal counsel as to what would be the repercussions if we simply cancel the elections or suspend them for a year?”

Next came board member Tracy Rosenberg, who, in a two year long debate with me on these web pages, has insisted that these elections represent a “safeguard” and “safety net” for Pacifica.

“A decision was made that it was worth spending 2-2.5% of annual income to keep those safeguards in place,” Rosenberg explained in our last exchange, adding my that concerns about board costs represented a “tea party-style argument.”

But here is what she said during the PNB discussion:

“Well, just to reiterate what Alex said, we were showing at the end of February about a $600,000 organizational surplus throughout the five stations. We found out that the transmitter in Houston blew out; it may cost $200,000 to replace it. We need a new [inaudible] at KPFK, that’s $100,000; and WPFW needs at least $200,000 minimum. It actually needs far more than that, but at least to get a start on the capital move that they are going to have to make at the end of the year. There goes your operating surplus right there. That’s the answer to that question.”

“In terms of what we should do,” she continued, “I find canceling an election to be a really upsetting prospect. I understand what the numbers indicate, but I cannot in any way say that I would favor such a thing. This is basically our central organizational by-laws. This is an important process.”

Rosenberg suggested looking at less frequent elections and electronic balloting, the latter “something we should have implemented in the past ten years. It is kind of horrible that we didn’t. We may have reached a financial situation in which we are forced to do so because we can’t afford to print 79,000 ballot books and paper, and if that’s the case, we may need to look at some sort of delay in order to get ourselves technologically up to speed to have an election that costs $80,000 rather than one that costs $180,000.”

A revealing comment came from board member Marcel Reid. “I’d like to know in the last five election cycles, have we ever had an election that was not followed by a lawsuit?” she asked. “We need to factor in the cost of printing, and the cost of the subsequent lawsuit. Maybe we could skip the expense of both this year.”

Hate to say I told you so, guys, but wouldn’t the nearly $3 million dollars that Pacifica’s unwieldy elected board system has cost the organization over a decade come in handy just about now? Here’s my suggestion, Pacifica National Board, suspend November’s elections, then dump democratized boards altogether. Why?

First: Pacifica can’t afford them, even if the organization goes to electronic balloting. This is a network mired in expenses and inadequate levels of support from the station’s listener subscribers. The expectable “unexpected” expenses that invariably come up make these elected boards, which cost $378,023 in 2010, a luxury that Pacifica cannot afford. The network desperately needs to put its money into talented on-air people, not governance. That means not only scotching these elections, but dramatically reducing the size of the boards themselves.

Second: These elected boards don’t help Pacifica radio. I don’t even consider the people who are elected to these bodies to be board members. They’re really just the leaders of factions representing the interests of air-time seekers or air-time holders around the five Pacifica stations. Thus, the possibility of having boards that really work together to raise money or solve problems is dissolved in factional conflict that Pacifica now subsidizes via expensive elections.

Third: These elected boards politicize everything at Pacifica. I hear board members complaining about Pacifica workers obstinately challenging and arbitrating their layoffs. Of course they do. When you have elections in which candidates are constantly complaining about how we need to change Pacifica’s air sound, the employees of the network are always going to experience any decision made about them as political. So are their listener fans.

Fourth: Most Pacifica station subscribers don’t even participate in these elections. In KPFA in Berkeley’s 2010 election, about 84 percent of subscribers voted for nobody, despite receiving mailers from two different slates, an official ballot, listening to incessant candidate forums over the air, and doubtless being begged by their friends to vote for one slate or another.

Fifth: Elections are not necessary to protect the Pacifica stations. The biggest concern following the upheaval of 1999-2001 was that the board might sell one of the Pacifica stations, and that can be prevented by language similar to or stronger than the current by-laws, which give Pacifica subscribers, as “members” of the Foundation, the right to recall board members and weigh in on “the sale, exchange, transfer or disposition of any of the Foundation’s broadcast licenses.”

Kudos to Engelhardt for putting this issue front and center. Enough of this failed experiment in “democracy.” These elections were never about protecting the network. They were always about giving disgruntled outsiders their big chance to be insiders. Just get it over with, Pacifica boardies. Cancel November’s elections and revise the by-laws to create a new, more sustainable system of governance for Pacifica radio.

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7 Responses to Pacifica radio Executive Director: we are out of money for elections

  1. Israel Smith May 1, 2012 at 5:04 am #

    I’m sure I’m missing something, but wouldn’t Google Forms get the job done for voting? No printing or mailing costs required.

  2. Matthew Lasar May 1, 2012 at 6:36 am #

    Some board members object to an online system because they fear that some subscribers may not have Internet access.

  3. Ann Garrison May 1, 2012 at 7:07 am #

    What Israel said. Why not Google forms?

    Also, serving on the LSB seems like a tough, thankless job. As a KPFA and WBAI programmer, I appreciate those willing to give that much of their time, imperfect as the process is. I considered running for the Board several times years before I ever contributed any programming to Pacifica and never did, not because I didn’t think it mattered, but because I wasn’t willing to give that much myself.

    The 26% voting rate is no surprise either. About 40% of registered San Franciscans voted in last fall’s mayoral election, but no one has said the City should do away with the mayor’s office.

  4. Nathan May 1, 2012 at 10:07 am #

    I’m surprised KPFA managed to get 16% turnout. WPFW has had to mail 2-3 ballots per election to get the 10% required quorum.

    Old arguments about the digital divide preventing members from voting don’t carry the water they once did. Pacifica stations are in five of the most connected cities on the planet. Though that said, some members still don’t have internet access, I’m sure. So during voting periods, each sister station could set up a couple computers in the lobby for folks who have no internet access to come in and vote. Problem solved.

    Pacifica spends way too much on governance. Flat out. Having been laid off from Pacifica a few years ago during an earlier period of contraction, it certainly made me a little bitter to see the kind of sums being spent to fly PNB members around the country and put them up in nice hotels for a long weekend of meetings.

    All that wouldn’t be so bad if the board were able to raise funds that even approach what it costs the organization. But discussion about board members doing fundraising rarely makes it beyond passing comments on the PNB.

  5. Maya May 1, 2012 at 4:25 pm #

    You are right that Pacifica governance is a train wreck. However, the fact that the organization is now finally talking about changing its wasteful ways is very highly suspicious coming at this point in time.

    The Pacifica national board has been in at war with its listeners and workers at KPFA since it cancelled the Morning Show back in late 2010. So much so that the PNB discussed, at its board meeting last month, trying to block emails from the hundreds of outraged KPFA listeners who have been writing the board — a proposal which failed by only one vote.

    Just two weeks ago, KPFA’s listeners and employees picketed the Pacifica office to object to its hire of the nation’s top union-busting legal firm.

    Elections this year actually represent a chance to change the out-of-touch Pacifica board and its incompetent national management team. Instead, that management “recommends” cancelling the election. So what would KPFA be left with? The same board and management that has virtually wrecked the station? That’s not a good scenario.

  6. Matthew Lasar May 1, 2012 at 10:51 pm #

    You are right, Maya, stopping elections now leaves the Morning Show wreckers in charge. But I’m not comfortable with a stance that, in effect, says “We’ll get rid of these elections after we take control of the board.” It’s not an honest, transparent position. The cancellation of “democracy” at Pacifica radio at any time will leave a significant portion of the current regime in governance. That’s just a reality with which KPFA will have to live.

  7. Ethan Young May 18, 2012 at 1:21 pm #

    I was election supervisor at WBAI a few years ago. The lsb there has no purpose except as a mud pit for infantile factions to wrestle in. Democracy? Representation? In no way, shape or form. Chuck it.

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