Friday, November 16, 2012

Burning the Grassroots ??


The PC’s held their AGM last weekend and there were a few jabs sent their way on Twitter; from the usual suspects and yes, okay I was one of them. On November 23 / 24 the Wildrose will be having their AGM and I fully expect return fire; times three. Likely very little of it will pierce me. Some might smart a bit if they come from PC friends like Calgary Rants or Enlightened Savage. Later we will get together for drinks with Alberta Altruist and others to commiserate on how every party has similar challenges to deal with. 

Typically I will point out how the Wildrose has been able to differentiate itself from some of the other parties; in particular when it comes to listening to the grassroots and avoiding top-down decision making.  Alas, it would seem the days of having those bragging rights are dwindling.

My last role with the Wildrose was being an elected (volunteer) Provincial Director (PD for short or some call them Zone Directors) from June 2011 to June 2012 when I stepped down. During that time the Executive Committee (EC) very seldom met (despite it being an election year) and on occasion the Provincial Directors were left off the meeting agenda. This made it very challenging to bring ideas forward that came from the Constituency Associations (CA) we represented and in turn from the members.

One thing the PD’s did get approved at the EC level was for the party to cut back its’ monthly fundraising letters to every second month. That way the CA’s could focus on their fundraising in the alternate months. That directive was given to the Executive Director, Shayne Saskiw in September 2011. It was never carried out.

More often than not though it would be the President bringing forward motions with the notion that it was a foregone conclusion we would pass them. With only a handful of individuals willing to ask questions or speak and vote against many of them, things generally got passed with little resistance. When this happens time and time again one begins to feel you are there simply to rubber stamp someone else’s agenda; but you never really know who “they” are.

Last Saturday my phone started ringing and emails came in about a motion apparently passed just last Wednesday (Nov 7) by the EC; that the vast majority of our members likely won’t be happy with, in respect to an office move.

The Party has been in very expensive downtown space since January 2010.  In my opinion it was the worst possible location and one of the worst financial decisions we ever made. It’s not wheelchair accessible, parking is expensive, the layout isn’t conducive to any sort of confidential business meeting, it’s so cramped volunteers are elbow to elbow, it’s cumbersome for media to get their equipment in and there is no room to set up for interviews. And to top it off we signed a lease that would expire March 2012.  I remember saying at the time; “we will be in another election then.”  And we were; so since then we have continued month-to-month paying the high downtown prices.

The Party does need to move; there is no doubt in my mind about that.  This was to have been a priority as soon as the election was over. This was discussed at the December 2011 and February 2012 meetings of the EC. There was resounding support to find a more affordable and accessible location in Calgary with free parking for our volunteers.  In fact in those same discussions we all agreed that when looking for our new Executive Director, (if Shayne were to be elected) that they would either be from the Calgary area or be willing to relocate to Calgary.

As I understand it a similar discussion occurred at the August 7, 2012 meeting; that the new location must be in Calgary. The EC didn’t want to deal with the blow-back they would get from CA’s and members if they considered another city.  Indeed the last time I did an analysis (early 2010), more than 80% of our membership base lived south of Red Deer and 75% of fundraising was coming from southern Alberta; with the vast bulk of that from Calgary.

Back to the motion passed. There seems to be two versions of what was passed going around. Even the board members I spoke to are confused as to what the motion said exactly. Version one is that there will be a report brought back to the EC on November 20th with options as to available space with a focus on finding space in Edmonton. The second version is that by November 20th they will sign a lease for a specific space in Edmonton.

Regardless of the wording, clearly the intent is to move the office to Edmonton. This was something that I had discussed with current ED, Jonathon Wescott just a couple of weeks ago when we sat down for a coffee. At that time he said it didn’t matter one way or the other to him where the office was. However he then proceeded to give me numerous arguments as to why it would be better in Edmonton.

Some of the things he cited were; “Staffing would be easier”, they wouldn’t “lose staff to the oil and gas sector.” “They could pay staff less”. “Space is generally cheaper in Edmonton”. “It would be closer to the Leg”. “It would help deter the ‘Calgary Party’ labeling”. And on and on.

People seem to have either very short memories or conveniently forget our failures. Wildrose has tried twice to have an Edmonton office and failed miserably both times. Volunteers don’t show up or if they hear certain other people are involved they refuse to help.  There are more ‘factions’ within the Edmonton Wildrose supporters than there are political parties in the whole province.

They also seem to think having an office there will somehow draw support. No – it doesn’t happen that way. Our office was originally in Red Deer, that didn’t change where our members came from. When we did move it to Calgary it was because the party was all but broke and someone offered free office space. Additionally, it was operated for over three years by volunteers.

Some (mostly the MLAs) argue that being closer to the Legislature will make it easier for MLAs or legislative staff to attend at the office. If you were to ask me that is EXACTLY the reason it shouldn’t be in Edmonton. The notion of is divvying their time between legislative and party activity is what will get us into very hot water. Directing any legislative staff or resources to partisan activity; even just the perception of it, would be a goldmine of material for the other parties to attack us on.

Many don’t seem to grasp the concept of the Board of Directors being responsible for the “operational” side of the Party and the Leader and Caucus being responsible for the “political and Legislative” side. The two work alongside one another, but the EC doesn’t tell Caucus how to run government (opposition in this case) and Caucus doesn’t tell the EC how to operate the Party. Sadly I think these lines have been drastically blurred.

Others also try to make a case about “there are too many Calgarians running for positions on the EC”. Well, yes there are a lot because this is where our largest base of members, supporters, volunteers and donors happen to be.  If Edmonton wants greater representation on the board all they need to do is RUN!  Again, moving the office there won’t magically make people more interested in doing a completely thankless volunteer job.

I’ve suggested it many times before, if Edmonton is so gung-ho to have an office (or Red Deer or the Hat or anywhere else) they should start it the same way we started in Calgary. Get your donated space, get volunteers to man it; then show us if you have an increase in support, membership, volunteers and donations. If your CA’s can’t do that, having 3 or 4 paid people in office cubicles aren’t going to get it done either.

After people started contacting me, I reached out to and spoke with several of the current board members. I wanted to get a handle on why the change in direction and why there also seems to be a rush to get this done just weeks prior to our electing a new board.

So I posed some questions to a few EC members (both for and against the move to Edmonton), CA presidents and a couple members. I’m only posting the responses that were made by two or more individuals.

Why did this have to be decided now, right before a new EC is elected?
  • During the meeting an EC member did ask for it to be tabled for new EC
  • Paul Collins insisted it be dealt with prior to AGM
  • Rob Ladouceur formulated and put forth the motion
  • There is a Nov 20th deadline to enter into new lease (3 days prior to AGM)
  • Some MLAs felt it wouldn’t go through once new board was elected at AGM

What about the staff?
  • There is only one staff member Wescott is willing to bring to Edmonton
  • One is being offered a soft landing with the CPC
  • The other two will be let go

What do you think is the true motivation for moving the office Edmonton?
  • Jonathon Wescott never intended to relocate to Calgary even though he was aware it was a board stipulation back in late 2011 for the new ED
  • Jonathon’s wife is a Crown Prosecutor in Edmonton and won’t relocate, she is also 7 months pregnant so Jonathon knew this when he applied for the position
  • Promises of jobs were made to people in Edmonton. IE: “Put your name forward in the election (that you likely won’t win) and we will take care of you post-election by way of employment.”

I will restate I do support the office moving and believe the EC should have dealt with it six months ago. Some will say; “oh but there wasn’t an ED in place six months ago.” My response to that is it’s not the EDs decision to make. ED’s operate under the governance and guidance of the EC. Certainly locating space is something they could task the ED with, however in the absence of one they could delegate it to someone else. Or as the EC in 2010 did, they could engage the services of commercial rental brokerage. Heck they could even send out a Tweet and do some crowd-sourcing.

It leave one to wonder why there is now such a rush to get this done? Especially when it seems the two main EC members championing it are Paul Collins and Rob Ladouceur, neither of whom are running for their positions again. Remember Rob L is the one who wrote the clause enabling them to prevent anyone from running for the EC for any reason.  And it was Paul Collins (in the comments of that same posting) who referred to vocal Wildrose, grassroots’ supporters as “clowns”.

They know full well a new board will be in place by month’s end. Indeed the timing of a November 20th deadline, just three days prior the AGM is very suspect. Is this their way of leaving a legacy of their time served?

In case you’re wondering which board members opposed the move to Edmonton they are:

Cheryl Phaff
Judy Johnson
Krista Waters
Wendy Fulton

Now, back to my opening remarks about listening to the grassroots and avoiding top-down decision making.

Is moving the office part of Caucus business? No. Having a party office and its location are an operational function which the EC is responsible for.

Is moving the office at the ED’s request or to suit where he lives a good idea? Again, likely not. Are we going to move the office and hire new staff each time we have a new ED? Keeping in mind Wescott is our fourth Executive Director in less than three years.

Is moving the office a decision for the entire membership to be making? I think not, it would be a bit cumbersome to garner input from 25,000 people.

Is it something that perhaps the EC could elicit feedback from CA’s on through their PD’s? Absolutely. It would make great strides towards building those bridges and they do after all represent the members. 

One of the concerns I hear repeatedly coming out of Edmonton is access to EC minutes. Currently the only way to get them is for a CA president to request in writing to attend personally at the office to view them. Previously our practice was to email them out – you know part of being "open and transparent." So it’s no wonder CA’s who can’t attend personally at the office feel put out by the Party.

As it stands right now it looks like this decision was made outside of the EC and they are simply being used to get it approved. It unfortunately raises doubts about how many other decisions are being made by individuals not elected by the members. It begs the question; “are we really any different than the PC’s?”

If we want to be able to keep holding our heads high and honestly say “we aren’t like other parties”; we had better make sure we elect an EC at our AGM who will abide by our constitution and listened to the members and our CA’s who are also duly elected by the members.

Members please take the time to get to know all the candidates who are running. You can find a list and more information on each of them by clicking here.



Update: I've received a copy of Jonathon Wescotts' "Office Relocation Report".  However, I will need to remove some information; so will be posting a redacted version shortly.

Report is now posted under a separate tab at top of blog. Here is quick link to it.

Update: Saturday, Nov. 17

Interesting twitter discussion on this post.

Link to full string.




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4 comments:

  1. Jane,
    If this is not dealt with at the AGM, where the members present can discuss and decide what city the office should be, then we've lost all credibility as a party.

    If the head office is in Calgary and Westcott isn't prepared to travel here on business then he needs to tender his resignation.

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    Replies
    1. Hi Dan,

      I'm not convinced the AGM is the place for mass discussion of this. As I mentioned in my post, I think consulting directly with members isn't needed. I mean we did elect the board to make the high level decisions.

      Having said that; major decisions shouldn't be made in a vacuum. The PD's are their pipeline to the members and CA Presidents.

      Many CA presidents know the member base very well. We need to start giving them some credit when it comes to knowing the "heart beat" of the party.

      Beyond that I don't want to see the AGM side-tracked by this. While we won't be passing any policies,we will be discussing them; I think that is the more important discussion for members to be having at the AGM.

      When it comes to electing a new board; perhaps the question to pose to the candidates is "what methods will you use to hear the will of the members?"

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  2. That whole group of people around Link Byfield has been wrangling to bring the party office back to Edmonton since it left for Red Deer in 2004. They've done nothing but whine,piss and moan about it. Really the Edmonton office is one of the biggest reasons that whole crowd left and formed the Wildrose Party.

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  3. Jane, The 20th came and passed. Any update on how the EC handled the report and 'deadline'? Looking forward to an interesting AGM and hoping that we hold our heads high.

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