BURLINGTON, Vt.-At Vermont FCU, things are beginning to smooth out between the credit union and a member of the Occupy Vermont group who has been elected to the board, but both parties say there is still a ways to go.
That member, Eric Davis, is also part of a group that calls itself the "Vermont FCU Members Assembly." That relatively small group said it is seeking to increase member participation at the 33,000-member, $346-million credit union-including getting more members to participate in the annual meeting- as well as increase transparency and provide deeper support for the cooperative model, according to its website (vfcuma.blogspot.com).
Davis and Matt Cropp, who also ran for a board seat but lost the election, formed the Vermont FCU Members Assembly. "I do feel like a conflict exists at the moment (between the two groups) and I feel like that's unfortunate, because we never envisioned the Assembly being something really to push back with the credit union," said Davis. "When this was in its infancy we always thought that it could be a cooperation between the members, or at least a mutual relationship."
The Members Assembly attempted to put up four candidates for board seats, but only two met all the necessary criteria, and Davis was the only one elected. Davis has now attended a pair of both board meetings and orientation sessions, and met with other board members in an attempt to better understand the CU's inner workings. Davis noted that he does have a background in economics, but not finance, so he has been "going through a formal educational process" of learning to read financial statements and more. Board member Joe Finnegan has been helping him in that process, along with VFCU President and CEO Bernie Isabelle.
'Positive,' But Conflicts Exist
"I feel that the directors have put forth a genuine effort to be respectful and to honor the democratic process, and welcome me into the credit union. ...The relationship so far has been very positive," said Davis.
Part of the current conflict stems from the credit union's request that the Members Assembly not use the VFCU name, acronym or logo. "We've taken their request extremely seriously," said Davis, adding that the group is discussing the possibility of a name change. "I think the Members Assembly generally wants to work with the credit union; if they put this request out, let's talk about it and let's try to work with them in their requests."
The group currently has about 33 "Likes" on its Facebook page, compared to more than 33,000 members at the credit union.
VFCU's Isabelle agreed that "prior to the election the relationship was probably more antagonistic than it is now," in part because he said the Members Assembly has changed its positions somewhat as Davis and others involved have become more educated about the credit union.
"Eric has acted in a manner we would expect of a director and been very active in learning about the credit union and being a participating member of the board," said Isabelle.
One of the Members Assembly's complaints is a lack of participation at the annual meeting, but Isabelle said low turnout at the meeting is a sign that most members believe things are going well at the CU. Davis, on the other hand, said that he is also a member at Vermont State Employees CU in Montpelier, where "they have more of an active, engaged membership, and now that they're under attack from their regulator, they're able to go to the membership to go to bat for the credit union." (Credit Union Journal, July 23).
Seeking More Access To Board
The group has pressed for increased access to board members-including board members' personal e-mail addresses-and copies of board minutes. Isabelle said that some of that material violates the board's confidentiality policy, and Davis said that his group now understands that some of its requests-such as board minutes-may not be feasible.
Isabelle noted that VFCU already has a place on its website to contact directors, so that all members have access to the board, even without their personal e-mail addresses. "To sit there and say that we haven't been transparent is rather misleading."
But Davis countered that "the model of 'use the webpage and contact management' almost resembles a bit of the customer relationship, whereas just members talking among themselves reflects the member-owner relationship. I think there's room for both." Minutes from the Members Assembly's first meeting after Davis's election (available on the group's website) show that it has made some changes to its platform since Davis took his seat on the board. The group expects to meet next in September.
"The election itself was tumultuous, but I think everyone has turned the page and moved on from that, and I'm trying to do that myself," said Davis. "It's unfortunate that the conflict exists between the Members Assembly and the credit union. I hope that gets resolved. I'm confident that the Members Assembly will work to meet the CU's requests. Really I think this whole thing is just about working together and making sure that our cooperative is active and involving members."