Why Bother With The MEC?

This article is intended for the members of the Mendocino Environmental Center (MEC) and for the volunteers who helped put the MEC’s radio station on the air. It is also intended for the many folks, perhaps a thousand or more, who have worked in, done projects with or supported the MEC over the last twenty years.

By King Collins

Why bother with the MEC? Most of us (those who've been involved in the MEC over the years) would agree that some kind of organization is needed. The environmental crisis, global warming, the Iraq War, the insanely out of proportion priorities of our country, the multi-trillion dollar war debt, lack of universal health care, of affordable housing, of sustainable agriculture--everything’s in crisis. Yes, we need an organization like the MEC.

Over 40 newsletters were published by the MEC in two decades.

Furthermore, our location in downtown Ukiah is ideal, the rent is cheap---thanks to our landlord and founding member, John McCowen---and the MEC owns the license of KMEC, an operating low power FM radio station which can easily reach the entire Ukiah Valley.

And just as importantly, the MEC is a community membership organization and should be a model of how to do things. We feel powerless in the face of state and national politics over which we have almost no control. Are we willing to accept the same situation in our very own local organization?

Recent History of the MEC

Over the past three years, the MEC has dwindled and become almost invisible to the public. Yet a group of us, working in different combinations, managed to finish the building remodel and get the radio station on the air. A number of us gave substantial amounts of time and money to get these things done..

Chris Bennett, Denny O'Brien and Govinda Dalton did the paperwork which got the FCC licence for KMEC, a major accomplishment. A dozen or so of us were really excited about getting the radio station on the air. We hoped that somehow the radio station would solve the financial problems of the MEC. It didn't turn out that way. After a year and a half under the feeble direction of a diminished MEC board and self-selected in-group, the MEC and KMEC were broke and unable even to pay the cheap rent and relatively low overhead at our storefront.

Above: 2004: The MEC space at 106 W. Standley
is just a shell as the earthquake reinforcement is underway

When I got involved with the MEC again, fall 2004, working with several others on the remodel, I didn't expect to have much disagreement about process. I thought, somehow, that the MEC folks would know how to run things democratically. I should have known better. Radio seems to bring out egos and power trips. Actually, Govinda and I had intended to write down some basic guidelines for democratic decision making. Unfortunately we never did that.

January 2005. The studio is up and running.
Chris Bennett at the controls.

Heavy-handed Management

We were in high spirits as we worked together doing carpentry, plumbing, wiring and finally sheet rocking and painting. Finally, we had done it: the MEC building was renovated and KMEC 105.l FM was on the air! However as the radio station began to actually broadcast, the management (mainly Chris Bennett in the role of "station manager" or "program director") became more and more authoritarian. As time passed, Chris kept almost everything under his control, and adopted an impatient, off-the-cuff decision-making style. Chris was not only the manager of KMEC but also a MEC board member and, as such, was effectively overseeing himself.

In fairness to Chris Bennett, the job was almost impossible for one person to do, and there was not enough money for a regular stipend.

I offered my opinion that he should delegate more responsibility and adopt a management style more like the cooperative and collective projects of the earlier days of the MEC. Unfortunately Chris took these suggestions as personal attacks on him, and sometimes flew into near hysterical rage. When differences did arise, there was no real effort to resolve them, no mediation or due process. Volunteers were just thrown out.

Meanwhile the board of directors dwindled to two. The MEC's bylaws and procedures called for annual elections and a board of seven. In the fall of 2006 there had been no election for over two years. Chris Bennett resigned "temporarily" from the board and KMEC. Sid Cooperrider replaced Chris on the board and became the new "Program Director" and manager of KMEC.

Sid Cooperrider, one of the owners of the Ukiah Brewing Company, is talented in a number of ways, but particularly as a computer technician and (UNIX) programmer. As such, he has provided valuable help and money in setting up the radio station. However, he has said that he "never promised to be democratic." In the spring of 2005 he was appointed to the MEC board. As one of two surviving board members, he set up an exclusive group, "the official survival committee" which operated without concern for letter or the spirit of the MEC bylaws and procedures. He participated in the "banning" of volunteers, including the author of this article. In my case, a letter requesting mediation was absolutely refused by management (Chris Bennett). Long overdue elections were cancelled. Fund-raising from members and sponsors floundered. Finally, as noted elsewhere, outside intervention (the CFI) forced the current elections to be held.

MEC Elections Committee

By fall 2006, the tiny MEC board had canceled two board elections and was completely out of compliance with its own bylaws. Alarmed, the Cloud Forest Institute (CFI), the MEC's nonprofit financial umbrella, insisted that the MEC board execute a proper election. To insure that, an elections committee was set up.

The MEC Elections Committee was chaired by Dennis O'Brien who took the job with the understanding that the guidelines would be "transparency" and "inclusiveness" (and "practicality" meaning that the committee needed to produce the election on time). The committee included about a dozen people with perhaps six of us doing most of the work.

Former MEC board member, Denny O'Brien
chaired meetings of the Electikons Committee

I hoped that the election would be a chance to start again on even ground, to meet again with the enthusiasm we once had for our work together. The Elections Committee included Sid and his group as well as several others, including myself. It was inclusive, and we proved that we could work together. In fact, there were some very good times as we worked through the difficult process. I hope those who participated in the experience will remember that experience.

After creating the election process it was discouraging, to say the least, to find that a sub group had split off to run a SLATE, which effectively biased the election so that some of us have no chance of being elected.

Pre-formed bureaucracy - ready to be rubber stamped

It is now quite clear that the purpose of the manipulations that have characterized Sid Cooperrider and Chris Bennett's MEC, and lately the establishment of the MMGG and the SLATE, is to insure that KMEC will be managed in the style and in the person of Sid, Chris and their associates.

It should be easy for Sid, Chris and associates to win the board election. After all, the voting membership is less than 200, a considerable number of whom are members of Sid's family or friends of his, or employed at his restaurant. However the appearance of the SLATE indicates that there is still fear that one of the dissenters might get elected.

Meanwhile, under Sid's leadership, a pile of forms and a massive "station manual" have been generated for our tiny radio station. The result is a pre-formed, ready-to-go hierarchy for KMEC. And guess who is going to be the boss? The new board will be expected to rubber stamp the setup at KMEC and if so we can all expect to enjoy more of the bureaucratic style to which we have become accustomed.

Style of organization

So the question I am asking is what kind of organization do we want to support? And most importantly: What STYLE OF MANAGEMENT do we want?

For two years, from 2003 - 2005, I served on the board of KZYX. In the discussions I realized that there were two prevailing attitudes or tendencies about how to manage things, which I’ve described elsewhere (The Secret Life of KZYX) as “centrist” and “egalitarian.”

Even though there is no pure case of either tendency, for simplicity, let's compare the attitudes of Centrists with those of Egalitarians.

Centrists seek to establish and maintain hierarchy. Emphasis is on control and chain of command. When problems arise Centrists look inward, toward the existing hierarchy, for answers. Outreach and input from the members is often left to the last or not done at all.

In contrast, Egalitarians seek to share the decision making. Transparency and inclusiveness are basic. They favor frank reports to the membership and find ways to set up direct communication among members, board and staff., while Centrists tend to do things to maintain strict separations between these groups.

On the question of distributing information, Centrists nearly always expect discussion and reports to be “confidential,” while Egalitarians are more inclined to share such material with everyone concerned.

Transparency: Keeping the membership informed

I’ve spent years watching and being involved in “progressive” organizations, and every single one of them is undergoing the same crisis. It’s a disease. An epidemic. The most common symptom of this organization sickness is chronic lack of honest feedback to the members. In my work with community organizations, I decided to make it a point to keep the members (of a community "membership" organization) informed about what is happening. To my way of thinking that is as important as anything else, including raising money. After all, the membership provides most of the funds, and if given a chance they provide imagination and the practical solutions to the organization’s problems.

KZYX Satellite Studio at KMEC--Inclusiveness that could not be discussed

Here briefly is the issue that came up after the MEC space was ready and the radio station was broadcasting. It had to do with the possibility of sharing some of KMEC's facility so that KZYX programmers could produce shows at KMEC. To the surprise of many of us who thought KZYX management would never support it, the idea was proposed by Mitch Holman. Mitch had been appointed Interim General manager of KZYX. He was more technically savvy with digital technology than the previous manager and he suggested that the Ukiah Studio could be set up to for a few thousand dollars.

Mitch Holman, KZYX Interim General Manager
offered to set-up a KZYX satellite studio at KMEC

Some of us had great hopes that the MEC would support a joint project with KZYX, and felt that it was consistent with the MEC mission as a regional environmental and social justice organization. Chris demanded that he take over the negotiations with KZYX. The correspondence with KZYX shows well enough that Chris simply didn't want it to happen, and if anyone continued to discuss the idea, that person would be persona non grata. After some frustrating delays, Chris Bennett finally made it clear that he had never wanted to let KZYX in the space. "There will never be a KZYX studio at the MEC" he said to me after several discussions.

Whether or not you think that it's a good idea for KMEC to share some space with KZYX, the fact is that Chris alone had appropriated the power to simply nix it, no matter what anyone else thought..

How about a workshop or a forum?

We need a serious discussion, a workshop or a forum open to all members and to the community, to discuss what we all want the MEC and KMEC to be. And more than just a discussion, the outcomes of the workshop should have real consequences. (See Collins candidate statement.)

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Proper and Effective Governance

By Denny O'Brien

Denny sent the following letter which addresses, in a very positive way, the questions raised in the previous article.

A few folks have asked what I meant by “proper and effective governance” in my candidates statement.

Some have suggested that the Mendocino Environmental Center should operate under the same model as the Ukiah Co-op. There, a constant cash flow and the need for a paid staff result in a board that pays attention to policy but does not itself perform the day-to-day functions of operating a grocery co-operative.

That model does not work for the MEC and its activities. We have no paid staff; all cash is dedicated to maintaining the facility, to facilitating the activities of dedicated advocates. The MEC board should be composed of doers who are each involved with, and responsible for, an area of activity. These areas should include, at the minimum: office management; fiscal matters; KMEC radio; the MEC newsletter/website/list-serve; events/outreach; and governance/grievance. These doer-directors would report at each board meeting while ensuring that the activities comply with state and federal law and the Center’s own bylaws and policies.

I would personally offer to head up the governance and grievance committee. My experience suggests that, when things go wrong, the problem is often systemic rather than personal. As a trained mediator and facilitator I would help manage and avoid the kind of blowups that have bedeviled the organization, used up too much of its time and energy, and distracted it from its mission.

That mission, or at least part of it, is to facilitate the work of dedicated advocates. The one common thread among everyone I have met at the Center is the compelling need to do something worthwhile. Good governance must provide a way to focus and facilitate such energy and good will. Only then will people reach their full potential, and the Mendocino Environmental Center will become the shining light that is its best destiny.

Respond to Denny O'Brien