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Sometimes Heroes Have Just A Pencil And Clipboard

We all like to tidy up the unpleasantries of history. The further we get away from an event, the neater (not to mention shorter) we like to make it. Above all else, when we look back upon the opposing views throughout history we never fail to assume we would have sided with the forces of good and that we would have fought to defend those ideals.

Who among us, for instance, doesn't believe they would have been an ardent patriot at the time of the American revolution, speaking out in the public square, hand-publishing pamphlets in opposition to the king, racing Paul Revere to light the lanterns?

So, Braveheart, why haven't you been spending some of your Saturday mornings standing outside one credit union's branch in Maryland and collecting signatures? It's easy to be a hero in history. It's a bit peskier in the present. I've written here before that if there are heroes among us they are the unsung credit union members who work against all odds to raise member awareness of charter conversions, including gathering names on petitions to force a special board meeting. We all shift sidewalks when we see someone with a petition, so approaching folks with them must be even worse, right?

"The process has been great; it's wonderful, it's an encouraging activity," said Adam Schwartz of the National Cooperative Business Association (which has taken a stance opposing the charter change). Schwartz was joined by Amber Brooks, a member of Lafayette FCU in Maryland, in working to collect signatures seeking a meeting to recall members of the board at LFCU, which is the latest to attempt the old charter switcheroo. "Overwhelmingly, the people we talked to were opposed to the conversion. A good number of them already knew about it. One woman who had voted for it was annoyed to find out what it really meant. Most thought the way the disclosures were worded was not clear. Of the 50 or so people we talked to, about half signed and the rest took fliers and handouts with them. The overwhelming reason for reluctance to sign was they wanted more information to understand what is happening. And I understand that people are reluctant to sign something from a stranger."

Brooks, who had never before worked any type of petition drive, largely echoed Schwartz' positive experiences with members. "It was really good to get to talk to people and to get to hear from people on what they want from a credit union," she said. "The reaction from a lot of people is that what the credit union said and what is really occurring is completely different."

Schwartz said he and Brooks made it clear a signature was not an obligation nor a vote. The duo, along with others demanding that more time be given to members to make a decision, has been under a deadline gun, seeking 750 signatures or so by Nov. 15. That's because the credit union has set a Dec. 16 date for the vote on becoming a for-profit bank. Hitting the Nov. 15 date would have given the opponents the 30 days needed to call a meeting prior to Dec. 16.

"It's been very tough to get the word out because we can't mail to the members," said Schwartz, who is discovering what others who have had the courage before him to oppose these conversions has found. "The way these votes are carried out is not good democracy. They have access to the vote total and we don't. They can see who has voted and we can't. They have the list of members and we don't. The odds are really stacked against us. A lot of Lafayette members also live overseas and we can't reach them."

Lafayette serves employees of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), and don't think Lafayette wasn't well aware those members in foreign lands would be easy to keep in the dark. You can add another item to the long list of sad irony in charter conversions: USAID employees working to help underdeveloped economies prosper will become economic victims themselves if Lafayette succeeds in becoming Lafayette Bank.

What do you say to a member who may be in a hurry and you have a complex message to share? "We tell them the board of the credit union has voted to convert from a member-owned credit union to a bank charter," explained Schwartz. "In other cases where this has happened, loan rates go up and savings rates go down and management and the board enrich themselves. People seem to get it. People belong to a credit union for a reason-because they want to."

Similarly, working against the conversion has become something Brooks, a USAID employee, WANTS to do.

"I had read up on this and done some research and was trying to figure out what was going on and how this would benefit the credit union," Brooks recalled of when she first learned of the conversion attempt. "I was outraged. The board of directors was elected to represent the interests of the members and that is not what this board is doing."

Not that the board of LFCU didn't know what it was doing in some respects. As Schwarz noted, NCUA has proposed rules that will make disclosures far clearer and which will put more information in the hands of members, "but Lafayette timed theirs so they didn't have to play by those rules."

But what may have been Schwartz' keenest observation was something he noticed as he stood outside the LFCU branch, clipboard in hand. "Just in the strip mall where the LFCU branch was there were three other banks, and (this) one credit union."

Futures are created by what we do today, not how we like to believe we would have acted in the past. So, credit unions, what will you do now so that someday others will say, "That's what I would have done!"

Frank J. Diekmann is Publisher of The Credit Union Journal. He can be reached at fdiekmann<at>cujournal.com.

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