Peninsula Co-op elections draw controversy

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The Peninsula Co-op has become a hotbed of controversy in recent years and people are paying special attention as its annual Board of Director elections approach.

The Peninsula Co-op, a co-operative organization with core businesses in petroleum, grocery and convenience stores, has a stated goal of contributing “positively to the communities where we operate.” However, what this goal means has come up for debate.

The organization — with $150 million in annual sales and a 50,000-strong membership — is also home to illegitimate elections, corruption allegations, Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (SLAPP) suits, legal threats and police investigations. It is also a stronghold for some of the most pro-development figures on southern Vancouver Island.

In recent years the Co-op has become a knotted nerve for some of the most tangled and sensitive issues in the greater Victoria area including urban sprawl, local agricultural land and food production, sustainable local economies, and ecological integrity.

Local farmer Randy Pearson, had serious concerns with the Co-op’s 2009 electoral process and filed arbitration request. After arbitration, Judge Jakob De Villier declared the 2009 election illegitimate.

Typically, three of the nine board positions are up for election every year. However, after De Villier’s ruling, board members Ron Gaudet, Cathie Ounsted and Mike Fecteau were declared invalid, leaving three additional board positions available.

Pearson and the Co-op resolved that the three board positions would go up for election at the upcoming May 2011 Annual General Meeting. As a result, this election has six seats available, presenting a unique opportunity for Co-op members to vote for a very different mosaic of board members.

Co-op controversies such as the elections have garnered the eye of concerned citizens and new Co-op members. Jeanette Sheehy, a 26-year-old organic farmer in Saanich, recognized the need for a fresh perspective within the Co-op, which was established in 1977. She is running for the Board of Directors this spring in what is shaping up to be a historic election for both the Co-op and peninsula as a community.

“If members decide that Peninsula Co-op should be about gas rebates, the incumbents have a good chance of winning again,” said Sheehy. “If we can show members the possibilities of what the Co-op could do for southern Vancouver Island in terms of community investment and food security, then I think they’ll elect a new Board.”

Development

David Lawson, a long time resident of Central Saanich and 25-year Co-op member, decided to run in the 2009 and 2010 elections out of concerns that the Co-op was aiming to develop agricultural land into big box stores.

“One of the problems with the peninsula is that it is one of the few places that the developers can actually gain large tracts of land to take hold of and make quick profits on,” said Lawson.

“So that’s the fight that we’ve got now and it’s ongoing. I’m sure that it’s going to last a long time.”

What he experienced during the elections shocks him to this day.

“There are a lot of adjectives I could use to describe the elections. But I think the most appropriate adjectives I could use to describe the management and the board came down in the arbitration award last year,” he said. “Bad faith, scurrilous, oppressive. These are words described by a judge in the arbitration and that describes my experience. I was completely unprepared for that, because I didn’t realize people like that lived in this community. And I still find it shocking.”

Co-op CEO Pat Fafard and General Manager Ron Heal were not available for comment.

One project causing animosity towards the current management of the Co-op is the proposed rezoning of six acres of agricultural land adjacent to the Co-op gas station on Keating Cross Road and West Saanich Road. The proposal would turn the land in to commercial zoning for a new supermarket.

This proposed development spurred a prank that has resulted in a police investigation. Pranksters placed a “For Sale” sign up where the rezoning application notification billboard stood at the proposed site of the supermarket.

The sign was apparently meant to draw attention to the problems inherent with the rezoning.

Some members feel the proposed rezoning displays a dedication to profit rather than community.

“As a community-owned and operated Co-op we should be doing more to support the social and economic development of our region,” said Sheehy.

In the June 2009 elections, candidates challenged elected board members and campaigned against the collective political direction of Co-op management. At the time the opposition was indicative of some of the community’s concerns with the Co-op being used as a tool for urban developers. But what many felt was more indicative of the problematic management of the organization was the way in which they responded to individuals vying for elected positions.

The 2009 elections were later described by De Villiers as conducted “in bad faith and in a manner that was oppressive to those members that were in opposition to the incumbent board’s and senior management’s land use plans.” The Annual General Meeting (AGM) when elections were supposed to be held saw booing, calling down’s, and the shutting off of microphones.

Elections were opened prior to the meeting’s commencement, which greatly impeded those running in opposition to the incumbents from being heard.

It was also the first time that the Co-op did not issue election pamphlets educating members on the various candidates’ platforms and relevant work experience, and did not allow challenging candidates access to the Co-op’s membership mail-out list serve.

Currently, Co-op staff are barred from campaigning, and Co-op resources are prohibited from being used for partisan purposes.

New threats

Groups like the Co-op Action Network, previously the Friends of the Co-op — along with neighbourhood residential organizations like the Mount Newton Neighbourhood Association and the Residents and Ratepayers of Central Saanich Society — are engaged in mobilization efforts to combat what they see as the pro-development practices of the Co-op and aim to increase the democratic viability of the organization.

However, dissident voices have been met with a substantial number of threatening letters that are coming out of a high-profile North Vancouver lawyer’s office on behalf of people associated with the Co-op.

“It’s not just opposition to the Co-op out here that is initiating letters from a . . . lawyer, it’s anybody trying to protect property, and land, and farms out here who are getting those letters,” said Lawson.

These letters are threatening SLAPP suits and have been sent to many of the people who have opposed the Co-op’s activities, or those who have stood out against urban sprawl and the development of agricultural land in the Capital Regional District.

Lawson said sharing specific details would put him in line for a SLAPP.

“I can tell you that the suits have been pervasive . . . The lawyers have been having a heyday with this whole thing.”

People like Sheehy are gaining an awareness of what is at stake with aggressive development and are hoping to bring people out in record numbers for the elections that open at various Co-op locations on May 25 and close on June 8. The election will utilize a new multi-site voting system mandated by the arbitration report.

“It seems like members are conceived as consumers, not owners. But the more I learn about Peninsula Co-op the more I realized that it has the potential to be a driving force of positive change in our communities,” Sheehy said.

“I want to make the Co-op more transparent and participatory, by finding new ways to involve members in consultation and decision-making.”

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