Cost of democratic safeguards is steep, Pacifica discovers

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Pacifica’s transition to a listener-elected board of directors carried an unexpectedly high price tag, and network executives are exploring cheaper alternatives.

Last year the radio network enshrined its democratic principles in bylaws that empowered its staff and members of stations to elect Local Station Boards. Those boards in turn vote for the network’s national board.

The bylaws were a crowning achievement to activists who spent years wresting Pacifica from an unpopular board, which had begun appointing its own members and installed a top-down governance style. But the additional governance costs have shocked some Pacifica leaders, who ask whether the cash-strapped network can sustain them.

Pacifica elects its local station boards with staggered terms ending in a three-year cycle. For two years, half of each station board is elected each year. In the third year, no election is held.

The first round of elections under the new bylaws, which wrapped up with the seating of a national board in March, cost $188,000, according to Lonnie Hicks, Pacifica’s chief financial officer.

Of that amount, $70,000 paid salaries of election supervisors-one at each of Pacifica’s five stations and a sixth on the national level. The rest of the money funded the printing and mailing of ballots and candidate statements to the 100,000 listener-members qualified to vote, Hicks said.

Stations pay their own election expenses, Hicks says, but Pacifica’s national office reimburses them for most of the cost.

In the first elections, 312 candidates ran for 122 seats, a logistical burden comparable to a balloting in a small city, Hicks says. The next round of elections, which began this month with a call for nominations, could cost up to $200,000, he says.

“No organization can withstand that kind of expense and prosper,” he adds.

“We had no idea when we rewrote these bylaws that we were opening ourselves up to a process that was going to be this expensive to pull off,” says Duane Bradley, g.m. of KPFT, Pacifica’s Houston station.

KPFT has the smallest membership base of Pacifica’s stations, Bradley says, but spent $20,000 on last year’s elections. The station hired an election supervisor and expected to employ him for no more than six months. But wrangling over the bylaws among members of Pacifica’s interim board delayed elections, and six months stretched into 10. The election supervisor donated his time for a few months and was paid half his salary for a few more, Bradley says.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if there were calls for some kind of Pacifica convention to rewrite the rewritten bylaws,” he says.

Already the network is considering ways to offset costs. Pleas for donations may accompany ballots sent to listeners, a technique that raised $18,000 for WBAI in New York during the last election cycle, according to Pacifica Board member Carol Spooner.

The network might also save money this fall when it introduces a new method for tallying ballots. Volunteers counted votes by hand last year, but in the upcoming elections Pacifica will outsource the grunt work to TrueBallot, a company that will count ballots with optical scanning.

If that goes smoothly, Pacifica might be able to lighten the workloads of its election supervisors, says Kenny Mostern, the network’s recently hired national elections supervisor.

Internet voting would be even cheaper, but Mostern fears participants would distrust a system that leaves no tangible trace of their votes. “What you gain in efficiency and cost savings through Internet voting, you lose in transparency,” he says.

Not everyone agrees that Pacifica’s situation is dire. Spooner estimates the upcoming round of elections will cost $115,000, well under Hicks’ calculations. “I do not see it as an expense that is seriously troubling,” she says.

Whatever the figures, few contest that empowering Pacifica’s listeners is worth the effort.

“I like democracy,” Hicks says. “I just want it to be cheap.”

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