Was BriarPatch election flawed?
An overwhelming victory by five candidates for the BriarPatch Co-op board of directors is now under question by some owner-members who say ballot irregularities and a conflict of interest have tarnished the election.
Only owner-members are allowed to vote in the co-op’s elections and this year marked the most contentious race in the store’s history with 15 candidates vying for five seats.
More voters than ever before, 611 people, turned out to cast their votes one year after the store moved to its new and bigger location on Sierra College Drive.
Peter Van Zant garnered the most votes with 378, followed by Lew Sitzer with 364, Joey Jordan with 296, returning director Debbie Plass with 294 and Jeff Gold with 276.
Several issues have come to light with the recent election.
Some wonder why they weren’t allowed to drop their own ballots into the ballot box or why an election committee member had possession of the ballot box key when her husband, Lew Sitzer, was running for election.
“We didn’t put our ballots in a box. Someone else did it for us,” said Gwen Moore, a member since BriarPatch’s early days when it started out as a small, colorful outpost serving affordable natural food on Joerschke Drive.
Store managers and directors say staff had full control over the election and no tampering or misconduct occurred.
“I feel like it was a very secure, untampered election,” said co-op’s general manager, Paul Harton.
The League of Women Voters counted the ballots and found no indication that the ballots had been tampered with, said new director and former county supervisor Peter Van Zant.
Among irregularities The League of Women Voters found were 22 ballots that were not initialed by staff because staff had forgotten this step in the process in several cases, the election committee report said. Another two ballots were found missing, one of which was destroyed by staff when it was discovered a non-member had cast their vote.
Some owner-members also have complained of receiving “election mailings and calls from candidates” and “expressed concern about whether their names, addresses and phone numbers were obtained from the co-op’s database,” according to an election committee report.
Of primary concern to owner-member Michael Padone, is a ballot box key that lay forgotten at the bottom of election committee member and board director Eddy Sitzer’s purse for five days at the beginning of the election.
Sitzer had the keys because she was supposed to return them to Greg Diaz, county registrar for safe keeping until the election was over.
“Anyone after hours could just take the ballot box and have a field day with it,” Padone said.
Eddy Sitzer, whose two year term ended last month, sat on the election committee while her husband, Lew Sitzer, founder of NCTV, was running for election.
“The thought of a conflict of interest never occurred to my wife and I,” Lew Sitzer said. The fact that his wife had the key in her purse was an innocent oversight and she never had access to the ballot box that was locked in a safe in the customer service room, Sitzer said.
Soon after and early in the election process, Eddy Sitzer resigned from her position on the election committee, Harton said.
“She wanted to try to remove any sense of impropriety,” Harton said.
At a May 19 board meeting a report drafted by the elections committee noted irregularities. Plass Gold, Jordan and Sitzer were present. Peter Van Zant was absent from the meeting.
According to the minutes of the meeting, director Mike Pasner “expressed distrust of the irregularities and urged the Board to be prepared to deal with them in the future.”
Those questioning the election process are a minority group who have had problems with the board in the past, Lew Sitzer said.
At the meeting, director Arthur Katz resigned from the board to avoid 8-1 votes. Since the co-op moved to its new location, both Katz and Pasner have disagreed with the rest of the board on a number of issues.
Directors voted to accept the 2008 election process and will not schedule a new election, despite the concern over irregularities.
“There’s no one who has asked for one,” Harton said.
Owner members who have expressed concerns about the election and didn’t vote for Van Zant, Sitzer, Jordan, Gold Plass say their concerns aren’t sour grapes.
“We don’t mind losing, but we want it to be legitimate,” Padone said.
To contact Staff Writer Laura Brown, e-mail email@example.com or call 477-4231.
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