As Heated Board Election Ends, S.F. Bike Coalition Looks for a New Leader

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Bicyclists pedal down Market Street on Bike to Work Day 2015. (Myleen Hollero/San Francisco Bicycle Coalition)

A contentious election for the board of directors of the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition, which drew the largest turnout in the organization's history, has ended and the first priority will be to hire a new executive director.

The SFBC, founded 40 years ago, has become one the biggest and most influential voices for bicycling and safe streets in the country. Its membership numbers are the envy of many local advocacy organizations: More than 10,000 people can call themselves bike coalition members.

So when the SFBC's member-elected board of directors proposed taking away voting rights, and instead have its directors appointed, some members were alarmed and launched an effort to "Save the SF Bike Coalition," headed by Jeremy Pollock, a bike advocate and aide to Supervisor John Avalos.

"The SFBC has been gradually deprioritizing members to gain favor with big donors, politicians, and corporate funders," the group wrote on its website. "While we fully appreciate the importance of fundraising and building relationships with politicians to accomplish the Bike Coalition’s goals, we’re concerned that the SFBC is becoming less supportive of member-volunteer advocates."

The board said it had good reasons to change the rules, but admitted it fumbled the way it presented the issue to members. Some current and former staffers, board members and supporters stressed that it is best practice for nonprofit boards to be appointed, and for board members to focus on fundraising and management.

The Logo of the Save SFBC slate.
The Logo of the Save SF Bike slate. (Save SF Bike )
The logo of the Love SFBC slate.
The logo of the Love SFBC slate.

But members of the Save SF Bike group retained a lawyer, and after threatening legal action, forced the organization to hold an election, in which two opposing slates of candidates -- Save SF Bike and Love SFBC -- ran for seven open seats. It was the first time a board election had been contested.

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On its website, Love SFBC, whose slogan was "Pedal Forward, Not Backward," said the board should stay focused on "enabling staff, and not taking them in an overly political direction."

"Board members ... play the important role of governance, including areas such as finances, fundraising, non-profit management, and human resources. We need professional Board members who understand and have experience in these roles."

The technical and legal issues that were challenged are pretty complicated, but this lengthy story from Streetsblog San Francisco's Melanie Curry summed up the election this way:

Depending whom you talk to, the issues are member's privacy vs. members voting rights, progressive vs. neoliberal politics, whether the board should become professional or stick to its grassroots tradition, or whether diversity and equity belong at the core of bike advocacy.

The conflict has created a face-off between two opposing candidate slates for the seven board seats up for election this year, giving members what looks like a stark choice between business as usual and a takeover by a new board.

The Chronicle and SFist also have interesting accounts of the issues. As SFist's Jay Barmann put it: It's more than you'll ever want to know.

The results of the election were announced last week, and a majority of the Love SFBC candidates won, but two candidates from the Save SF Bike slate were among the top seven vote-getters.

"I think the big takeaway is that there is a lot of passion around bicycling and around the organization," said Leah Shahum, the bike coalition's former longtime executive director, who received the most votes and was elected to the board as part of the Love SFBC slate. "I know a lot of organizations that would give their right arm to have this kind of engagement."

For Shirley Johnson, elected as part of the Save SF Bike slate, the election was about retaining voting rights and transparency. She said some members feel the organization needs to do a better job reaching out to low-income communities and people of color.

"They have some blind spots right now, and members came together to say, 'Hey look, we have some ideas to improve this.' In fact, we feel so passionate about it that we're running for the board," said Johnson.

Johnson leads a group called BIKES ONboard, which fought to gain more bicycle access on BART and Caltrain. It was under the umbrella of SFBC, which decided to part with the group. Moving forward. Johnson says she would like to see SFBC empower member advocates.

Pollock said the election was a good first step and hopes to work with the board to push Save SF Bike's platform of "reinvigorating the coalition, diversifying it and strengthening it."

"I hope that it shows that member elections can be a great way to get members involved and excited about the organization," said Pollock. "It's healthy to have different perspectives about how we should go forward."

Love SFBC said on its website that it's looking forward to moving on, and focusing advocacy around some of the big issues ahead in 2016.

"The strong showing of our slate of candidates (5 of our 7 candidates won!), combined with the fact that all of those elected have long-time ties to the SFBC, leave us optimistic for the future of the organization.  We have a big year ahead of us, and we hope that everyone who campaigned and voted will continue their engagement and dedication to the SFBC."

According to Save SF Bike, the organization's bylaws dictate that candidates must receive a majority of votes, or face a runoff election, or be appointed by the board.  Three candidates did not receive a majority, and SFBC must now decide whether to appoint them or hold a runoff.

Meantime, Lawrence Li, the past president of the board who was re-elected, said the first priority will be to hire a new executive director. It'll be a nationwide search, he said.

In the middle of the board turmoil, executive director Noah Budnick abruptly resigned, saying he wanted to spend more time with his family. Budnick is a veteran bike advocate who came from New York's Transportation Alternatives.

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For now, program director Margaret McCarthy has been named interim executive director. She officially took over on Monday.