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Bicycle coalition’s political future at crossroads

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Bicyclists negotiate The Wiggle on Haight Street in San Francisco on Tuesday July 28, 2015. (Special to S.F. Examiner/Natasha Dangond)

Through sheer people power, the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition politically muscled San Francisco to construct miles of bike lanes, and often rallies some of its 10,000-plus members to back street safety reforms.

The group’s efforts will reshape San Francisco streets for the next decade, but now the two-wheeled political heavyweight may be reshaped as well.

The nonprofit advocacy organization is asking its 10,000-plus members to vote by the end of Friday, July 31 on this question: Should they have the right to vote for the coalition’s executive board?

This is seemingly an insider-only issue. But some members say losing voting rights would hurt the group’s political influence.

That influence “derives from the credibility of our claim to speak for a large, diverse membership,” wrote Edward Hasbrouck, a candidate for the bike coalition’s board, in an open letter to members.

“If our ‘coalition’ lacks internal democracy,” he wrote, it will “become vulnerable to criticism that we don’t really speak for many SF bicyclists.”

The issue was spurred by a quirk in state law, the group said, which allows anyone running for the coalition’s board to ask for its thousands of members contact information. Once obtained, one candidate, Hasbrouck, “spammed” members’ emails.

Noah Budnick, executive director of the bike coalition, said the incident “caused the biggest upswell of member complaints anyone can recall.”

Removing members’ voting rights would plug the legal hole in privacy, Budnick said.
Critics like Hasbrouck are not alone. More than 60 former and current members created the website “savesfbike.org,” and planned to protest the bike coalition’s Golden Wheel Awards Thursday night.

The group claims the bike coalition’s privacy concerns are unfounded, and untrue.
“To many, it’s using a sledgehammer to kill a flea,” said savesfbike supporter Madeleine Savit, who also heads the organization Folks for Polk. Budnick disagrees.

“Over 1,000 members volunteer with us every year,” he wrote. Without voting power, he said, “members will continue guiding our work by partnering with our staff everyday.”

Public relations strategist Larry Kamer said that more than many nonprofits, the coalition draws influence from its people power. But, “no matter how they do it they’ll have disaffected members,” he told the Examiner.

Kamer is known as a “crisis consultant,” and his firm has managed campaigns for Nike, City College of San Francisco, Safeway, Chevron and more. He said the coalition depends on career activists “who live and breathe these issues,” but also casual supporters “who maybe write a check and aren’t at the vanguard.”

The bike coalition, he said, would be unwise to discount that second group.

Ultimately, the most important component to maintaining the bike coalition’s political power is to resolve the issue before it weakens the group internally.
After all, Kamer said, “you’ll never please everybody.”

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