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Pro-democracy position

Opposing statement against the Sierra Club 1999 Ballot Question

Author: Dick Schneider

Background: The Sierra Club board tried to change Club bylaws to increase by 250% the number of signatures required to place a measure on the ballot. In the 1999 annual election, Sierra Club members rejected the Board's proposal by a vote of two to one . This is the SUSPS-supported Pro-democracy position:
Please vote AGAINST this DEMOCRACY-KILLER. It is unnecessary and will disenfranchise the membership, the heart of Sierra Club's strength.
In 1968, the Board placed a similar amendment on the ballot to increase the signature-gathering requirement to 3% (instead of the current proposal's 5%). Members overwhelmingly rejected that amendment. Director Frederick Eissler wrote the following opposing argument. His words are just as eloquent and powerful today:
"As the Club grows, members must insist that the impersonal weight of bigness not be allowed to clog lines of communication between their elected officials and themselves. One democratic safeguard is a workable system of initiative and referendum which the Club has had for 75 years. The proposed bylaw amendment would, however, impose a prohibitively high signature requirement....
"Petitions of this kind serve two essential purposes: they make it possible to raise new questions whose importance may not become apparent until they have been widely aired, and they make the membership the 'court of last resort,' as it should be.
"We...[are], in effect, virtually killing the democratic right of petition altogether by imposing upon ourselves an excessively high signature requirement. It would be a sad irony if the membership, by voting for this amendment, unnecessarily and unwisely disenfranchised itself. Rights that have been given up are hard to win back."
WE DON'T NEED THIS CHANGE. Since 1978, only 5 petitions on conservation issues have qualified for a vote of the membership. Each was tremendously important.
* 1978: Should Sierra Club oppose California's Peripheral Canal?
* 1987: Should preventing nuclear war be a top Club priority?
* 1994: Should Sierra Club oppose logging on public lands? (This measure lost when presented in such a way that Yes meant No.)
* 1996: Should Sierra Club oppose logging on public lands? (The measure passed by a 2/3 vote when presented clearly.)
* 1998: Should Sierra Club endorse a comprehensive US population policy (fertility and immigration reductions)?
Win or lose, each petition involved an important conservation issue with serious environmental consequences. Each deserved a vote of the full Club. In some cases, passage reversed Club policy, allowing the will of the membership to prevail.
Qualifying a petition by a combination of signatures and chapter endorsements is not viable since chapters are dependent on the national Board for local funding.
David Brower, Director
Martin Litton, John Muir Award
Dick Schneider, SF Bay Chapter Executive Committee
Also see election results and analysis and our democracy section for questionable actions of the Sierra Club Board in other elections.


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