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Editor’s Column: The problem with democracy

I probably shouldn’t admit this, but I am the kind of person who enjoys (or at least doesn’t mind) sitting in on a good debate about the rules of order at a business meeting. This kind of passionate bickering about tabling resolutions probably doesn’t happen at biker gang summits.

The most recent rules-of-order-related dispute I witnessed broke out at the Saskatchewan Pulse Growers Annual General Meeting at CropSphere in January, when the SPG board of directors brought forward a proposal.

The board was looking for authorization to appoint two additional members to its seven-member board, saying seven people were no longer enough.

As the pulse industry has grown, there are more and more issues for farmer board members to focus on, and more related boards that require SPG representation. When the seven-member board was set up, former board member Vicki Dutton said at the microphone, “it was a different industry.”

That sounded reasonable; nobody in the room wanted to demand that SPG (volunteer) board members work longer hours and spend more days away from their farms. The bit that caused the problem was that the board had requested that the two appointees not necessarily be farmers.

This was not too popular in the room. There was a general feeling that it would be better if the two appointed members were farmers. If the board needed outside expertise, it could hire that, while keeping the board reserved for farmer members.

Could the resolution be amended? Or would members have to vote it down and start again with a brand new resolution, calling for the appointment of two farmer board members?

Netflix probably isn’t going to make a movie out of this kind of compelling drama any time soon, but, as I said, this is the kind of polite debate I don’t mind watching. However, it is the kind of time-suck that might be keeping farmers off of the board and out of the AGM in the first place.

Elected is best. Maybe

After several speakers meandered up to the mike, the room decided to vote down the first resolution and came back with another: a proposal to allow the board to appoint two additional farmer members. This resolution was approved.

While it seemed clear that if there are going to be more people on the board, almost everyone in the room would have preferred that there be two more elected members, the board had made a pretty good case for appointments.

Chair Brad Blackwell pointed out that not enough farmers are running for this board (this is the case for most commodity boards). “This is the third year in a row we’ve had no elections,” he said. While, of course, this is a sign that Saskatchewan farmers are happy with the work of the current SPG board, it might also indicate a general lack of interest in the project. Requiring more farmers to run might not pull more qualified farmers out of the woodwork.

Another problem with electing more farmers is regional representation. On this board, and many commodity boards, some areas of the province are better represented than others. Having spent hours that morning driving from the farm to Saskatoon in -37 C, I can tell you exactly why that is. If the SPG wants to recruit a member from a far-flung area, it’s going to need to find someone with new winter tires and a SiriusXM subscription. Not to mention a spouse or child who doesn’t mind staying home to do the actual work. While appointing rather than electing board members doesn’t make the distance from Saskatoon to Carduff shorter, it can remove one hurdle.

Another potential problem is the three-year terms. The board proposed to appoint members for just one year. A past board member pointed out that a young potential board member with no previous experience may not want to commit to a three-year gig, before they have a chance to see what sort of work is involved.

There was also a vague hint of the possibility of using the appointed positions to increase the representation by women on the board.

All of these reasons seem sound. Even though I, and everyone else in the room, seemed to wish these problems didn’t exist, the room supported adding two elected positions. But I don’t think anyone was particularly thrilled.

There’s no replacement for democracy. Except sometimes when there is.

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