Elections at the commodity association board level in Saskatchewan, often known for a landslide lack of interest, may get goosed this year with candidates investing bigger stakes in their campaigns.
Ballots have been mailed out and board elections are now underway for the Saskatchewan Wheat Development Commission (SaskWheat) and the Saskatchewan Barley Development Commission (SaskBarley). Each commission has three vacant board positions and seven candidates competing for those spots.
The province’s wheat and barley growers have a vested interest in the commissions, as they fund them directly through per-tonne levies (52 cents for wheat, 50 cents for barley) — but last year, fewer than 10 per cent of eligible voters mailed in ballots.
New campaigning techniques may attract more voters this year — but the styles and strategies being used have raised complaints elsewhere and leave some wondering whether the electioneering might weigh, even inadvertently, on the commissions’ governance.
“The days of snail mail are kind of behind us,” said Daryl Fransoo on a town hall conference call last Wednesday, which attracted more than 1,000 listeners to hear the views of six of the 14 SaskWheat and SaskBarley candidates.
This year, board candidates are using websites, Twitter, brochures and group campaigns to get their messages out.
In both elections, three of the seven candidates have formed slates and are campaigning jointly. They’ve promoted each other on Twitter, created joint web sites and organized and paid for their own open conference call to give voters a forum to direct questions to the six candidates.
“Doing it individually would have been very expensive,” says Zenneth Faye, a current SaskBarley director and one of three candidates working together to campaign for positions on the SaskBarley board.
With Daryl Fransoo and Larry Spratt, Faye is a member of what’s called Team Barley, but he takes exception to the term “slate.”
“We’re not a slate, we’re a team,” he says. “To me, a slate means that you have to vote for me and the other two. That’s not the way this is meant to be. You can vote for whoever you want.”
Faye says he brought the team together to help increase voter turnout and to ensure there would be strong candidates on the ballot. “I came across these young individuals that have lots of energy and diverse backgrounds and expertise.”
Scott Hepworth, a member of TeamWheat, says he chose to run as part of a team made up of farmers from different regions of the province so they would have “a better chance of getting our names so far.”
He also hopes to increase voter turnout. “If nothing else,” he says, “generating some awareness for the Wheat Commission itself and this election has been successful.”
Teams tagged out
This isn’t the first time Saskatchewan farmers have seen slates of candidates. In 2011, three candidates ran together as a slate to fill three vacant positions on the Saskatchewan Pulse Growers board of directors. The following year, when five candidates ran for two vacant positions, the same three SPG board members openly endorsed two specific candidates through their own news releases and advertisements.
Complaints followed, and the SPG changed its election policies. The two endorsed candidates dropped out of the election and the three sitting directors resigned from the board.
Today, the SPG’s revised policy states that “1. No director will actively campaign in an SPG election outside of campaigning for themselves; and 2. Neither the SPG Board, nor its directors will endorse candidates in an election.”
None of the three TeamWheat candidates are SaskWheat incumbents; Faye is a sitting SaskBarley board member and, as part of TeamBarley, is endorsing and campaigning for other candidates.
This doesn’t violate SaskBarley’s policies, but it would not be allowed under SPG’s new policies. Given that most Saskatchewan farmers grow a mix of crops, its crop commodity groups can have nearly identical membership.
In the 2012 SPG election, farmer and pedigreed seed grower Vicki Dutton found herself running on the ballot alongside two candidates endorsed by sitting directors, and was disappointed to find herself campaigning under those circumstances.
“Putting your name forward as a candidate is intimidating enough,” Dutton says, “without adding a slate campaigning together.”
Dutton, now a sitting member of the SPG board — but not speaking on behalf of the board for this article — said she believes board members elected to commodity organizations need to bring their independent voices and beliefs to the table.
“These are not political parties we’re trying to run,” she says, “but complicated organizations where every individual voice is needed.”
Slates of candidates, Dutton believes, may not bring all of their independent views to the table, in which case a board risks becoming dominated by groupthink.
Saskatoon lawyer Nancy Hopkins agrees that if candidate slates become common, board governance may become an issue for farmer-funded commodity associations. One of Hopkins’ legal specializations is corporate governance, and she serves on several boards, including the board of Cameco.
Hopkins points out that the Canadian Coalition for Good Governance recommends that directors be independent of each other. “You shouldn’t have a board made up of people who tend to vote together.”
“The principle,” she says, “is that you want to elect people to the board who will bring independent judgment, their own background and skills and knowledge, and an independent point of view to every decision that’s made.”
Hopkins says the worry is that if a group of people who are working together join the board, they may continue to support each others’ views when they otherwise would not.
Dan Danielson, a sitting member of the SaskWheat board running for re-election, but not on TeamWheat, says it’s common for like-minded people to come together.
The difficulty arises, he says, “in circumstances where those like-minded people turn into factions. If there’s a hidden agenda or personality conflicts separate from the overall organizational objective, it can be a negative circumstance.”
This year, three SaskWheat incumbents are running for re-election; none are a part of TeamWheat. While the incumbent directors are not actively campaigning together, Danielson says, “the situation forces you into a bit of a slate because you’re all defending the record that you’ve had since you’ve been elected. To me, it’s an issue of degree.”
Faye isn’t worried about board conflicts or governance issues resulting from a potential election of TeamBarley members at SaskBarley. “Once you get elected, you’re representing barley growers across the province,” he says. “I vote what I feel is best for barley producers and the industry.”
Faye stresses that TeamBarley is not political, and neither is SaskBarley. “Our mandate and our regulations state that we are for research market develop and extension activities. Anything outside of that is a non-issue for us.”
“When I’ve chaired producer group meetings,” Faye says, “my first comment is, ‘Leave your political hat outside the door.'”
Eligible Saskatchewan cereal growers must return their ballots for both of these commissions by Dec. 2. Successful candidates officially begin their terms following the commissions’ annual general meetings: Jan. 11 for SaskBarley, and Jan. 13 for SaskWheat.
— Leeann Minogue is the editor of Grainews. Follow her at @GrainMuse on Twitter.
Candidates for the SaskWheat board:
Dan Danielson, Saskatoon, incumbent
Scott Hepworth, Assiniboia, TeamWheat
Gene Lahey, Lacadena, TeamWheat
Rick Lindsay, Arborfield
Laura Reiter, Radisson, incumbent
Bill Rosher, Kindersley, incumbent
Scott Sefton, Broadview, TeamWheat
Click here to read candidates’ biographies online.
Candidates for the SaskBarley board:
Zenneth Faye, Foam Lake, incumbent, TeamBarley
Gilbert Ferre, Zenon Park
Daryl Fransoo, Meota, TeamBarley
Cameron Goff, Hanley, incumbent
Leo Howse, Porcupine Plain
Keith Rueve, Muenster
Larry Spratt, Melfort, TeamBarley
Click here to read candidates’ biographies online.