Archive for November 2nd, 2009

An open letter to the board and members of the Powell River and District Agricultural Association

By David Parkinson

Thistles

Thistles growing in a clearcut

On Thursday October 29, 2009, at a general meeting of the Agricultural Association, a member brought a motion to the floor seeking to nullify the election of several members of the board at the June 2009 Annual General Meeting of the Association. After extensive discussion, the board consented to call an extraordinary general meeting at which the members may bring to the floor whatever special resolutions they need in order to remove the offending board members and hold new elections. The president of the board indicated that the current board members would not stand for office in any new elections.

To the members of the board,

First of all, I congratulate you on the work you have done during your few short months in office. You inherited a messy situation and had to figure out a lot of things on your own. You brought to light the true relationship between the Association and the management of the Open Air Market. You worked to settle the fundamentals of the Association: insurance, maintenance, and cash-flow; all of which had been ongoing problems threatening the Association’s ability to function as a working society. You oversaw this year’s Fall Fair, which was very successful and has guaranteed that the Association can meet its expected financial obligations for the coming year.

Whether or not the membership chooses to acknowledge these accomplishments, you should be proud of them. If you had not stepped into the vacuum of leadership in June, it is not certain how these things would have happened.

Along the way you have stepped on some toes and hurt some feelings. As often happens, these bad feelings have festered and spread. You have made some political blunders. You put advertisements in the Fall Fair prize book from several local businesses that some of the members consider to be working against local agriculture. Apparently these are not minor matters which call for reprimands or censure: these are infractions for which you must be excommunicated.

In my opinion, all of the things you stand accused of you did out of haste, ignorance, and excess zeal for the well-being of the Association and its members. I believe that all of the hurt feelings and all of the political gaffes could have been resolved if those concerned had been willing to sit down and talk them through. Unfortunately, no one took the initiative, and we have now probably passed the point at which mediation would have helped.

I can imagine that you feel abused and insulted, having spent who knows how many hours trying to do your best for the Association and its members. It was clear to me, as I witnessed the general meeting last Thursday, that nothing you could say or do was going to turn the situation around. No one even mentioned mediation or any effort to work through the conflicts. The verdict was in before the meeting began. And now it seems likely that the membership will press for new elections: the nuclear option when something less drastic would have sufficed.

I cannot thank you on behalf of the members, as I am no longer a member in good standing of the Powell River and District Agricultural Association. Instead, I thank you on behalf of the community, most of whom never even knew you were on the board. Thank you for doing your utmost to watch over the Association and keep it running. Thank you for working hard to make sure that the Fall Fair could go on. Thank you for doing the best you could in good faith and under difficult and stressful circumstances. Thank you for devoting your time and energy to this thankless child.

I wish you the best of luck.

Sincerely,
David Parkinson

To the members of the Association,

The die is cast. You will have an extraordinary general meeting at which you may elect a new board. Some friends and supporters of the current board will disappear and cease to be friends of the Association. No great loss, you may say. And presumably things will return to more or less the way they were before this board was elected. I wonder, though, whether this is really good for the causes that the Association stands for, and whether it is good for the community as a whole.

The people in the region who support local agriculture treasure the Open Air Market and the Fall Fair. But most of them have no direct connection to these institutions other than as consumers and well-wishers. The members of the Open Air Market and the Agricultural Association are mostly the vendors who have an obvious personal interest in belonging to the organizations which give them access to the markets where they sell their produce and crafts.

But the hundreds of people who shop weekly at the Open Air Market, who participate in the 50-mile challenge, who buy from local farmers, who grow their own food, and who generally subscribe to the values of the Agricultural Association — shouldn’t they also be members of an organization which works to further their interests?

I urge you to think about bringing the public into the Association as members. The public good is not served by having an unstable Association tottering from one board to another. Sooner or later, if things carry on as they have been doing, you will run out of members willing to serve on the board. Give the public, your best supporters, a reason and a way to join the Association. Make it clear what you stand for, tell people about it, and enlist their support and help.

Another thing you will need to do is clarify your principles and policies so that every member understands them. It is simply unacceptable to sack your board for violating principles or mission statements which have not been ratified by the Association and made clear to all members. If you must remove board members, it must be because they acted against principles that they clearly understood and explicitly endorsed when they stepped onto the board. And even then, you should all work towards a more forgiving culture, one that does not go straight from personal disagreements and well-meaning blunders to all-out war and slander. Your board members are human beings, fallible like you.

The following is the purpose clause from your constitution, as filed with the BC registrar when the Association was incorporated in 1995:

The purpose of the society (Association) is to establish and maintain a Farmers’ Market which will provide a marketing opportunity to local organic farmers, growers, producers, artists and crafts people; to improve production; to stimulate public interest; to increase consumption of local products and to spark the local economy.

This is your official statement of purpose. All other manuals, lists of rules and regulations, and vague statements of faith have no legal status and should not be considered binding on your members or board, unless it can be clearly demonstrated that they are official documents of the Association.

I think that you need to face the possibility that replacing your board is not going to solve the problems of the Association. In the past two years, the board has lost (by my count) six directors and an administrator through resignation. You are about to add a few more board members to that pile of bodies. Why can’t you find a stable board of directors? I suggest that you try to answer that question.

To my mind, about the only person who said anything decent at last Thursday’s meeting was the vendor who said that she has struggled with the backbiting and gossip floating around the Open Air Market. Her point was that all of this senseless bickering and division is destroying one of the finest things in Powell River. I feel the same way, and I suspect some of you do too.

I believe very strongly that it did not need to come to this, and that the mistakes of the current board came from an excess of zeal rather than from a desire to trample on the historical values of the Association or on the feelings of its members. I also believe that they would have been prepared to make amends, learn from their mistakes, and move on. However, these are moot points now.

Those of us who support the local food movement are aware of all the challenges: a population of aging farmers; the high cost of arable land; the lack of young trained farmers; a runaway regulatory apparatus from all levels of government making it hard to produce and sell food on a small scale; high import costs of feed and inputs; the list goes on. Why add to this list by creating division in the small and embattled group of supporters? Our main task is to find a way forward, to enlist greater support from the public — particularly from those who do not think exactly as we do. We need to continue to build a community around local agriculture, not allow it to divide itself and create rifts. We need to expect differences of opinion and occasional conflicts. We need to learn how to resolve these when they become serious.

I wish you the best of luck.

Sincerely,
David Parkinson


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