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)