Current Magazine, March 9, 1999

Tempers Rise as Pacifica Lets Board Select Itself
by Jacqueline Conciatore

In a vote before a raucous crowd in Berkeley late last month, Pacifica's national governing board gave itself the authority to select all of its own members, a historic change for the progressive network.

Board members say they had to approve the bylaws change to keep Pacifica's chain of five stations legally compliant and maintain its CPB funding eligibility.  The amendment changes the board's composition from 10 appointees of Local Advisory Boards (LABs) and six at-large members to 16 at-large members.  All 16 will be nominated by the board's Governance and Structure Committee, which will first take nominations from LABs and anyone else, says Executive Director Lynn Chadwick.

Opponents of the move say it's a power grab that former Pacifica chief Pat Scott first tried three years ago, when she proposed reducing the number of LAB board reps by half and taking the remaining half from stations' signal areas.  The board ultimately voted it down.

Critics fear the Pacifica Foundation wants to sell of WBAI, New York, or KPFA, Berkeley, which both have commercial frequencies.  In recent years, Pacifica's leaders have instituted changes that previously would have been unthinkable, says WBAI union rep R. Paul Martin. Pacifica has overseen "massive purges" of station volunteers, and is working to rid WBAI's union of non-paid staff.  "What are they going to do now that they have absolute power?," he asks.

Removing what some see as the last vestige of democratic decision-making in the organization inspired extreme feelings, not unusual in the world of Pacifica.  Board Chairman Mary Frances Berry attended the Feb. 27-28 meeting with a personal security attendant, saying she'd received death threats.  And spokesperson Elan Fabbri says the national office received "a lot of very violent and negative comments and responses" by e-mail, fax and phone.

There was also a police presence at the meeting on UC's Berkeley campus. The university required that the officers be there, and initially wanted to assign 12 of them, says Fabbri.  Though Pacifica didn't want any police officers at all, the crowd on Feb. 28 was so contentious that Fabbri felt safer with them there.  she said.

A weak board?

The bylaws change has rid Pacifica's old guard of any "hope that we could influence people and get this reversed and have Pacifica heal itself," says Martin.

But Berry said in a press release that the change was in the interests of "good governance."  She couldn't be reached for comment.

Under the old system, the LAB reps often felt conflicted between the interests of their stations, and those of the overall network, says Chadwick.  Former New York LAB Chairman Nan Rubin says the problem is worse than that:  the Pacifica  board historically has been weakened by parochialism and adversarial positioning on the part of LAB members. Chadwick admits the station reps sometimes fall into arguments about which station is "more Pacifica," and that the wealthier stations resent supporting the others.

Another problem was that LAB appointments to the board turned over so frequently.  Often, attendance at board meetings was determined by which LAB rep had time to go, says Rubin.  As a result, reps lacked the context they needed to be effective, she says.

The New York and Berkeley LABs wanted Pacifica to table the bylaws amendment until the network studied options and developed a new board structure.  But the board pushed ahead, saying it felt rushed by a recent warning from CPB that Pacifica's remaining 1999 station grants - due in mid-March - were in jeopardy.

CPB had first notified Pacifica in October 1998 that it couldn't have LAB reps on its governing board, because the law requires a separation of those functions, says CPB Radio V.P. Rick Madden.  "Lynn [recently] was asking how flexible [CPB could be]," he says.  "But that was the purpose of the 1998 letter, "which said it expected Pacifica to resolve the problem "promptly."

It was Scott who made the initial contact with CPB, last year, after receiving new certification guidelines that CPB mailed to all stations. She asked CPB President Bob Coonrod if Pacifica was violating the guidelines because of the LAB participation on its governing board, and he said, yes.

In practical terms, the bylaws change is not that significant, says Chadwick, because many future governing board members will be "graduates" of the LABs, "because of their knowledge and concern about Pacifica."  The board will also work to improve communications with the LABs, and has set up a committee toward that end, she says.  "That committee is still at work."

After the Governing Board unanimously approved the amendment, the LAB reps resigned their LAB seats; they will serve their full terms on the national board.

As for rumors Pacifica wants to sell a station, Chadwick says: "Things could happen, but that is not at all on the agenda here.  These stations are what we are all about, they're our most valuable asset.  There have been conversations at odd times...but the organization is financially stable right now...That's not what it's all about."

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