Monday, April 7, 2008

Close But No Cigar

At a meeting at Carnegie Center on Vancouver’s low income Downtown Eastside on Thursday evening, Chair Margaret Prevost told Rachel Davis to “Shut up”. For many members present that about summed up what was behind this Special meeting to change Carnegie’s constitution: silencing Rachel Davis.

Davis and two others elected to the Board, William “Bill” Simpson and Sophia Friegang, had become thorns in the side of the hard line left-wingers on the Board who are in favor of free speech as long as it follows their script.

Simpson was completely off script. He was an outspoken critic of the Downtown Eastside poverty industry in which Carnegie Board members and staff tend to be immersed.

Although more politically aligned with the Carnegie Board than Simpson, Davis and Friegang became targets of overt hostility by the Board when they spoke out against the barring of Simpson from the Carnegie Center and Board meetings just two weeks after he was elected. Friegang argued that the Board was complicit in abuse of “human rights”. Definitely off script. She was ignored. She resigned.

Two down, one to go.

As Davis continued to sit on the Board, she became the target of tactics ranging from verbal abuse to a secretive meeting by Board members to discuss her advocacy on the Bill Simpson matter. She was sent a letter from the Board requesting her resignation. But she wouldn’t take that train to Siberia.

Shortly after Davis refused to resign, the Board called a Special meeting to pass a resolution to change the way Board members got elected. The timing left Carnegie members suspicious. “Why is this in front of us now?”, a man called out from the audience at the meeting.

If the resolution passed, it would do away with guerilla election tactics. Currently any member who hangs out amongst the low income Carnegie Center population can simply turn up on election night, get a pal to nominate them, give a three minute speech, and get elected if they’ve asked enough of their pals in the Center to show up to vote. The long term members of the 15 member Board, who rely on abysmally low election turnouts to re-elect one another year after year, are caught off guard.

Bill Simpson caught them off guard. He had been barred from the Carnegie Learning Center on the 3rd floor for allegedly blogging about Carnegie – that was a few months before he was barred from the entire Carnegie building – but on the day of the June 2007 election, he asked his acquaintances in the Centre, “What are you doing at 5 o’clock? Would you be willing to vote for me?” A troop of Carnegie members trailed him into the election and Holy Brazen Blogger, Batman! Bill Got Elected!

If the new resolution passed, there would be a gap of a month between the nomination of candidates and voting. Never again would the current Board, which has members such as Jeff Sommers who have sat on the Board for decades, be caught completely off guard.

At Thursday evening’s meeting, Board member Peter Fairchild spoke in favor of the resolution, saying that every year on the evening of the election, “A whole bunch of people wander into the room who have never been involved.” The proposed requirement that nominees wait a month before the election, he argued, would “give people time to consider whether they actually want to do it.” He insisted that the Board was not attempting to “restrict” participation.

“Would you close the door and lock it,” Board Chair, Margaret Prevost, sitting beside Fairchild, called out to the door man checking membership cards of people arriving late to vote.

Rachel Davis spoke against the resolution. The current system “encourages positivity” in campaigning, she said. “It’s only negative campaigning that this will make easier. . .It will give a time period in which to do it in, a whole month.”

Jeff Sommers spoke in favor of the resolution. He’s the Board member who last year spoke against the request by Davis and Friegang for a review of the barring of Simpson, arguing that everybody who felt they had been unfairly barred would want their cases reviewed. “If you want to talk about shutting down democracy,” Sommers said on Thursday evening, “it’s not letting people campaign. . . .We’re one of the few community centers that doesn’t allow campaigning.” But as Carnegie member Wilf Reimer has pointed out to members in the past, Carnegie is not funded as a community center; it is funded and supervised by the City’s Social Services Group.

Karl MacDonald said he could see both sides of the debate but his concern was this: “It could end up as a smear campaign against people who for one reason or another are not accepted…It could end up like Pink Floyd ‘Up Against the Wall’.”

Jean Swanson, an activist with the Carnegie Community Action Project who has been outspoken about the treatment of Vancouver’s homeless but has seemingly lost her tongue when it comes to the treatment of homeless Bill Simpson, spoke in favor of the resolution. “Listening to Karl made me think if we voted yes, we could have an All Candidates Meeting where people would get a chance to say what they’re all about and answer questions.”

Joan Morelli, an anti-poverty activist and 35-year resident of the Downtown Eastside opposed the resolution. “I think that this Board should do it’s best to be inclusive of everybody in the neighborhood. Making it easier for people to participate should be the rule. Now they’re told they have to come twice.”

A man with a grey beard who volunteers as a tutor in the Carnegie Learning Center, said, “If people want to run for the Board, they should be willing to come to two meetings.”

Board member Gena Thompson was concerned that members were accusing the Board of “taking their voice” with this resolution. “Frankly, I’m starting to get angry.”
But Peter Fairchild saw the glass half full: “I’ve never seen so many people in the room for a meeting.”

“Yes you have Peter!", yelled former Board member Michael Read from the audience. "When William Simpson packed the meeting!”

Apparently picking up on the distrust in the room, Fairchild and Whitty counted the ballots in front of the membership. Each ballot was held up for the membership – those with stellar eye sight — to see.

Despite the many people who spoke passionately against the resolution though, the majority of the 52 people who cast ballots voted in favor of it. But the resolution failed to pass. That’s because the bar is high for a change to the constitution; seventy-five per cent of voters must vote in favor.

When the result was announced, Jeff Sommers immediately piped up, “There’s enough support here that we can do it next time.”
“Who said you had the floor?”, called out Wilf Reimer who, along with Davis, had insisted throughout the meeting that Roberts Rules of Order be followed to curb people speaking out of turn and interjecting abusive comments. Sommers would eventually snipe, “Do you have to have a rule to take a piss?”

Davis says Fairchild later made a point of telling her that the resolution had failed to pass by just one vote.

(photo of Rachel Davis taken by Wilf Reimer)


Anonymous said...

According to one Board member, Peter Fairchild, the Treasurer, sent out word today that they will be trying to pass this change to the CCCA Contitution again at the Annual General Meeting. He also made fun of Rachel for bringing a book of Robert's Rules to the meeting.
I say it's a good bloody thing she did, from what I saw going on with that Board! Utter craziness. Don't they have any idea of the rules? That was too much when the Vice-president asked if the board had adopted Robert's Rules. How long has she been on the Board, to not know that still, and she's the Vice President! Yikes!

reliable sources said...


You write,
"That was too much when the Vice-president asked if the board had adopted Robert's Rules. How long has she been on the Board, to not know that still, and she's the Vice President! Yikes!"

That exchange was one of the most memorable parts of the tape of the meeting, the part where Chair Gena Thompson (who was replacing Chair Margaret Prevost who left early), was confronted with Roberts Rules.

Rachel was insisting that Roberts Rules be followed and Gena said, "Are we using that? Rachel responded emphatically, "I think you are!" Gena said, "We've never adopted that" and moved on to something else, ignoring Rachel.

Rachel Davis said...

Thanks for reporting on this.
One of my personal favorite exchanges was when Jeff Sommers was condescendingly pooh-pooing my use of the word “evidence” to refer to what ever it was that the Board used against me to make their decision to ask me to resign, “……..I mean, we’re not a court!” he explained with a snort of derision. I answered with “ you aren’t a court, but you are a democratic body…” (and as such are bound to use democratic process!)

But then Dan, a home-free (to use Bill Simpson’s terminology) man stood up and really topped it off. Waving a copy of the letter from the board asking me to resign, he said “ It’s strange you say you are not a court, because I have here in my hand a verdict, and when you have a verdict there is usually a court that came before.”

That was my favorite witticism, but there were a lot of very conciliatory things said at that meeting too. It was obvious that some of the members who spoke were concerned about the board taking a difference of opinion personally, and that is really sad, but unfortunately well grounded in reality.
There are some people on the Board with whom I enjoyed a fine relationship with before joining, but because there was a different philosophy between us concerning the William Simpson issue, they somehow take that very personally and then proceed to persecute me in a personal way.

We are all trying to make the Carnegie Centre a better, more comfortable place, but I am concerned that the CCCA Board and Carnegie Staff and City Hall are some are trying to make it more comfortable for staff at the radical expense of the comfort of the Membership.

I have puzzled and puzzled over the behavior of the powers that be at Carnegie. Having been there since it opened when I was 16, I am rapidly approaching my third decade in my intensive study of the social trip that is going on there. I think there is a physical reality that plays into the psychological one we see at work, for example, in the instant affirmation of the Board that they are going to try to change the Constitution again as soon as they can.
Carnegie is essentially a building with a ruling class on the third floor, a mixed, middle class on the second, and a “Lower” class on the first floor, where I mostly hang out. It’s physically set up to enforce a distance between those “served” (too often with their ‘walking papers’!) and those who’s job it is to serve, and hardly ever shall the twain meet. Jeff Sommers felt sufficiently self-conscious about that separation to declare at the meeting that there’s no big difference between the Board and the Membership, they all have membership cards too. But the reality is, when was the last time Jeff was actually even in a physical position lend his actual ear to an first floor Member’s concerns? You never see him in the building for anything other than meetings.

It is that way for most of the staff and Board, increasingly, and sadly, they are completely out of touch with the membership that stays mostly on the first floor. I think you might see large changes in the atmosphere of Carnegie Centre if you put the Administration Offices in the library area, and the library on the third floor. It’d be quieter for the library people too; they’d be away from the loud music going on three days a week in the next room. And then the Music Facilitator wouldn’t have to work so hard trying to do the well nigh impossible, trying to keep musicians quiet! So it could work out well for solving a few different difficult social dynamics. Maybe we should call a General Meeting, (it only requires 150 signatures) and put that motion to the Membership. It’s much harder to ignore the concerns of people you have to actually be with, not just commute through on your way to work.

Motion: To move the Administration Offices of the Carnegie Centre to the First Floor and with one stroke radically alter the social environment

P.S. This rule in the CCCA Constitution about it taking 150 Member's signatures to get a General Meeting on the topic of your choice is an interesting idea in general. What do other motions do people think we should have a General Meeting about I wonder?

wilfr said...

In a matter of two months or so, the Annual General Meeting will be held. We have the power to replace this unsatisfactory board. Setting aside the process contained within Sections 84 and 85 of the Society Act, it seems to me that the best use of that power would be to rid the Board of it's present controlling influence at the AGM. 150 would likely not be needed, but if a substantial number of members got together, supported and elected a determined and right-thinking new group of candidates, it could be done. A minimum number of 8 members willing to run and stand up for the rights of all members, supported by a much larger number, could send them packing.

Whether it's 150 signatures for a Special Resolution or the election of a new board, it requires committed supporters, some kind of a plan with a clear agenda and a leadership/consensus component. I could and would support a united front to unseat those who control this present board. However, it seems to me that there are a lot of members out there with many more years of history and experience in the Downtown Eastside and at the Carnegie than I have, who could no doubt offer valuable support and leadership skills to contribute to the work Rachel Davis has been stedfastly doing, essentially on her own.

Quite frankly, I don't know who you are out there, fellow disaffected Carnegie members. I've seen and heard about some of you, but as far as numbers and names, I'm in the dark. It's hard to imagine any kind of change for the better happening if the numbers and the support are not there, so it really comes down to these members. Do we disagree with the way this board operates, and if so are we willing to stand up and say so with our voices and our votes? I am, but not within the status quo. I've seen Paul Taylor's middle finger, one too many times for my liking, thank you.

Rachel Davis said...

Because, no matter what people said, the board wouldn't vote to let me defend my self in another meeting, it's easy for what transpired at that meeting to have the emotional impact of a loss, Wilf, but I felt very supported by about 10 Members taking the floor and speaking in support of the Board allowing me due process. That count's for a lot. And I think the board noticed. I know I felt encouraged by the support I got there, it meant a lot.

Anonymous said...

Thought I'd let you know that in a meeting today I heard that they aren't going to try to change the Carnegie Constitution at the next AGM, too much trouble.