Steering Committee Analysis and Recommendations on Proposed Bylaws Amendments

A common motivation cited by members proposing amendments to the DSA-LA Bylaws for consideration at our first Annual Convention is a desire for more robust political debate and transparency. The Steering Committee shares this goal, as we hope to foster a more deliberative political culture throughout this Convention and beyond. As the highest legislative body of the local, the Annual Convention is a forum for members to democratically shape and refine our governing documents, and for many of us, it will be a first-time experience with the procedures and practices that go into a member-driven political organization. That's why the Steering Committee is kicking off the lead-up to the Convention by publishing a voter guide outlining our own recommendations and analyses for each proposed bylaws amendment. We encourage all members to join the debate and share their perspectives and analyses with comrades in advance of the Annual Convention. Submissions — for both member voter guides, commentary,  and amendments to amendments — can be made through this form. We will publish them alongside the Steering Committee analysis and recommendations on this page.

While we may not always be in unanimous agreement on each proposal (dissenting opinions within the Steering Committee are noted as such), we welcomed the opportunity to debate and deliberate our positions — and others' — as we work together to shape the future of our collective work.

DSA-LA Leadership Membership Obligations

Steering Committee Position: Unanimous YES

DSA-LA, and DSA generally, is a thoroughly open organization, with little in the way of membership requirements other than the payment of annual dues. As our organization strives to maintain the membership levels achieved in the membership spike of 2017, we appreciate that this amendment emphasizes the responsibility of committee leadership to model a prioritization of maintaining membership.  

Further, our current bylaws state that “[m]embers of the Los Angeles Local, DSA-LA will be those individuals whose dues to national DSA are paid in full...” and that “[a]ll Local Subgroup Officers shall be elected by the membership of the Local Subgroup…” We would argue that a fair reading of the existing Bylaws already requires that any candidate for committee leadership must be a member in good standing. This proposal makes that intent more clear.

Open Ballot

Steering Committee Position: Majority NO

Majority: Francisco, Kelsey, Maikiko, Rachel, Sam, Willie
Minority: Arielle, Max, Sangita

Majority Opinion:
While we applaud the intent of this amendment — we too believe that our chapter’s decision-making should be transparent and accountable, and hope to foster a “culture of vibrant internal democracy” — it is our shared opinion that its practical implementation would threaten   the privacy of our members and the security of DSA-LA as a whole.

No matter the mechanism, requiring “voting records of all members in chapter-wide or Local Subgroup votes [to] be freely available to all members” would mean that any person, including political opponents, journalists, employers and law enforcement, could pay $27 on and then immediately request a list of the names of every active member of our organization, and their voting record. While the amendment doesn’t specify the mechanism by which these voting records should be made freely available, it would then fall upon whoever is fulfilling the request (likely the Steering Committee, given their responsibility to “draft and execute Local administrative policy”) to give the voting records out — and if they didn’t, they would be violating our chapter bylaws.

Leaving aside the administrative burden of tracking, storing, and sharing these voting records, do we really want to make our member rolls and recorded member activity available for sale at the low price of 27 dollars? Today we have members whose active participation in the chapter is a violation of their terms of employment, and many more whose ability to organize and democratically participate in our chapter’s decision-making would be severely limited if this amendment were added to the bylaws.

The non-anonymous voting system we will use at the Convention — and the spirited arguments over amendments like this that we hope to see — is proof that the goals of accountability and political debate can be achieved without unnecessarily jeopardizing our members’ livelihoods and ability to organize within DSA. Further, we see the Steering Committee’s proposed chapter resolution to build geographic branches as aligned with the goal of supporting open democratic debate, by  developing more mechanisms for debate, discussion, and votes in person.

Minority Opinion:
We support the proposed Open Ballot amendment. We see open ballot for internal voting decisions to be a crucial component to moving our chapter towards having more transparent political discussions and a more vibrant internal democracy.

We strongly recommend that our comrades consider the following when assessing whether or not an open or secret ballot would be optimal:

  1. How important is it for us to discern how decisions are made?
  2. When taking positions on a matter, who is part of the discourse?

In a truly democratic organization, your votes and political positions are not yours and yours alone — they are part of the organization's capacity for self-determination. If we are to be a legitimately democratic and collective political body, our members should have to justify their decisions to the rest of the membership. Secret ballots allow for people to hold dissenting opinions without justification — and if dissenting opinions are legitimate they should be given a public voice anyway. Furthermore, the act of justification will create a more politically coherent membership, integrating deliberation into our voting process much more closely.

It's also incorrect to assume that open ballots lead to more coercive political pressure to vote a certain way than secret ballots; rather, the potential for scrutiny forces members to base votes on public reasons — not personal ones.

With that said, we do not believe the open ballot is superior to secret ballot voting in every circumstance. We recognize times when secret ballot voting is optimal — votes to recognize unions, for example, should be held using secret ballot. However, a vote to recognize a union is a different matter than the internal voting of a socialist organization.

Security and administrative concerns should not outweigh the potential to instill a political culture rooted in principled and comradely debate. As it stands, there are already massive gaps in information security in DSA, and this process would not necessarily lower the threshold for access to membership identity any more than current structures that exist (such as Slack). Furthermore, if our charge as members of DSA is to normalize socialism in the United States, owning up to our socialist politics is in fact a political and moral imperative.

Local Committee Assembly

Steering Committee position: Majority NO

Majority: Arielle, Francisco, Kelsey, Max, Rachel, Willie
Minority: Maikiko, Sam, Sangita

Majority Opinion:
The majority of DSA-LA’s Steering Committee supports the intent of this amendment to encourage and support cross-committee coordination and ongoing dialogue between Local Officers and leaders of Committees and Working Groups. However, we are concerned that as structured, this proposed amendment does not guarantee an increase in cross-committee coordination, and could serve to duplicate or undermine the structures that are being developed through our current slate of Coordinators.

A commitment to fostering cohesion across committees is already reflected in our bylaws. Having at least one Coordinator, whose primary responsibilities are “coordinating and communicating with other Committee and Working Group Coordinators as well as the Steering Committee about the progress of Committee work,” is a minimum requirement for any committee and was designed to facilitate the type of cross-committee work this amendment seeks to address.

The Steering Committee has also instituted a series of quarterly meetings with committee leadership to facilitate coordination between the various leadership bodies within DSA LA. The first of these meetings was held the first weekend of March. The meeting served as an opportunity to review chapter policy, discuss shared goals and priorities for the upcoming year, and to intentionally examine the work each committee is undertaking for areas of cross-committee coordination.

While it may be appropriate to ratify Coordinator best practices in the future, we feel that this should be informed by the experiences of the Coordinators, and that four months is not a sufficient amount of time for us to learn what works and what doesn’t. We do not believe that it’s prudent to institute detailed protocol around these meetings in our foundational governing document at this time.

Minority Opinion:
The creation of a Local Assembly will establish a regularity of cross-committee communication that informs integrated campaigns, proposals, and a more cohesive political program. As we work to build leadership across the chapter, this quarterly dialogue will foster horizontalism, agency, and collaboration among elected officers on a wide and representative scale. The Steering Committee has already been convening meetings of the coordinators and committee co-chairs, and intends to do so quarterly — if the membership would like to formalize that practice in the bylaws, we don't see any reason to oppose it. Though we would encourage the authors to include committee co-chairs in the Local Assembly, to foster the most effective and broad-based communication across the organization.

Local Officer Elections at the Annual Convention

Steering Committee Position: Unanimous NO

The Steering Committee enthusiastically supports the motivation for this proposed amendment, and we actively seek to build structures and processes that foster open political debate among members and those seeking to lead the chapter. As an example, this analysis and set of voting recommendations is itself submitted to the membership as a mechanism to encourage political debate and delineate political positions among chapter leadership.

However, it is our unanimous position that holding Local Officer Elections at the Annual Convention is not the most effective nor appropriate approach to accomplish this shared goal. Given that the bylaws clearly state that the Steering Committee’s duties include “facilitating and planning meetings of the Local [...] including the Annual Convention,” we believe that holding Local Officer Elections at the Annual Convention would both a) serve to diminish accountability for Steering Committee members executing this responsibility, and b) negatively impact impartiality in the election of Local Officers.

Planning the Annual Convention and ensuring a transparent, well-organized convening of our chapter’s highest legislative body is a key responsibility of the Steering Committee. Including the Local Officer election at the Convention would provide members with limited opportunity to ensure Steering Committee members not seeking reelection fulfill this important obligation in full.

Further, the bylaws entrust the oversight of nominations and election of Local Officers to an independent Nominations Committee. Holding Local Officer Elections at a Local meeting for which the Steering Committee sets the agenda would compromise the independence and neutrality of these elections. However, to advance the goals of this proposed amendment, the Steering Committee strongly encourages any future Nominations Committee to organize and convene opportunities for in-person dialogue and debate among the rank and file, and Local Officer candidates. We further recommend any future in-person convenings balance the inherent value of in-person endorsements, discussion, and decision-making with the chapter’s ongoing practice of remote voting to ensure the broadest possible democratic participation of members in Local Officer elections.

Anti-Oppression Liaisons

Steering Committee Position: Unanimous NO in current form, unanimous support with amendments

We support the spirit of this amendment to build toward and embed anti-oppressive culture and practices across our chapter. We would support its ratification under the condition that additional responsibility specifications, commensurate with similar positions in the bylaws, are added to the proposed amendment, as follows:

“Have at least one member who is responsible for staying up to date with all intra-committee anti-oppressive practices by maintaining active membership within the Anti-Oppression Committee, advising on issues they’re addressing in their respective committees, and contributing content ideas for ongoing programming focused on chapter culture and unlearning oppressive behaviors.

“The Anti-Oppression liaison can be appointed or elected within each Committee. To that end, in addition to the minimum requirements outlined above, each Committee may further define the role of the Anti-Oppression liaison within their Committee to best suit their committee needs.”

Lengthen Call for Amendments

Steering Committee position: Unanimous NO RECOMMENDATION

Through provision of analysis and recommendations, the Steering Committee seeks to share perspectives on proposed amendments which have the capacity to substantially redefine governance, decision-making, or administration of the chapter. The Steering Committee unanimously voted against offering a recommendation in support or opposition of this specific amendment.

Members can call Emergency meeting

Steering Committee position: Unanimous NO RECOMMENDATION

The amendment gives groups of 50 or more members the ability to call an emergency meeting of the entire Chapter, to be scheduled within two weeks of the submission of member signatures and notice of the meeting sent at least five days in advance. Only the meeting topic(s) requested by the signatories may be discussed.

The Steering Committee enthusiastically agrees with the spirit of this amendment, but has nonetheless voted to offer no recommendation on it. While we noticed ways in which we felt the amendment as written did not achieve all of it’s stated goals, we are abstaining from recommending a vote in support or opposition and are instead contributing an analysis. The organizational priority which the authors cite as justification is indeed one we take very seriously: “Maintain transparent decision-making processes which allows all members to democratically shape and engage in chapter decisions, avoiding top-heavy hierarchies and 'gatekeeping.'” This is why the Chapter has adopted the practice of providing in-person and online channels for member dissent and commentary in advance of any chapter-wide vote, and looks forward to exploring different mechanisms for democratic debate in future forums and meetings across the city.

There are already a number of avenues in which members may call for meetings on their own, either by submitting a proposal to Steering Committee or by simply calling it themselves. The only difference between such a meeting and the kind this amendment calls for, is the utilization of some chapter resources, such as funds for meeting space and online promotion.

It is the practice of the Steering Committee to provide significant time for presentations on anything that requires a chapter-wide vote at monthly General Meetings, which may be requested through the existing proposal process — in addition to time at the end of each Meeting for member announcements outside of Committees.

With that said, we do believe that members should be able to call for large meetings outside of these channels. A healthy, democratic organization gives members the space to voice dissenting opinions or respond to a crisis in a more immediate way. 

Finally, a key component of the authors' justification for the amendment is also to lift "the burden and responsibility of determining whether to call [a meeting]" off the shoulders of the Steering Committee. However, the Bylaws and this amendment also stipulate that Steering should facilitate the meeting. To that end, it would merely give the Steering Committee more administrative responsibility than before, in contravention of this stated goal. Perhaps a larger threshold of members to call an emergency meeting would be more appropriate, but the 50 members is also the same threshold as a chapter-wide vote on a proposal driven solely by membership (and not via a Committee) as described in the Bylaws.

Time Equally Reserved for Debate

Steering Committee position: Unanimous NO

As articulated in our Chapter Mission, “we aim to exist along organizational lines developed and led by members,” and central to this commitment is ensuring ongoing opportunities for members to democratically shape and engage in debate around chapter decisions. The Steering Committee is unanimously opposed to the proposed amendment titled “Time Equally Reserved for Debate,” because as currently structured, we believe that it narrows — rather than expands — mechanisms and opportunities for collective dialogue, debate, and dissenting opinions.

The proposal in question seeks to amend the Local Decision-Making process outlined in Article VI. As currently written, this article provides details on mechanisms through which members can submit proposals for chapter-wide endorsements, conditions under which a full analysis and chapter-wide vote may be requested, thresholds for chapter approval, and more. However, this article does not specify the precise means by which member feedback and debate must be solicited and structured in advance of a chapter-wide vote. This absence is not because the authors of the bylaws did not recognize the importance of dialogue, debate, and dissenting opinions regarding chapter-wide proposals. Instead, these details were intentionally left out of the newly ratified bylaws to avoid the creation of overly prescriptive governing standards that preceded an understanding of how the decision-making process would develop and function once ratified.

Since the bylaws were ratified in November 2017, it has been the practice that all chapter-wide votes are preceded by a presentation given by those making the proposal at a General Meeting. These presentations have been accompanied by various forums for online and in-person opportunities for member dissent, questions, and commentary in advance of the chapter-wide vote. Over the course of the next year, the Steering Committee looks forward to working with Committees, Working Groups, and members to experiment with, and refine the processes by which we organize member debate and discussion in advance of chapter-wide votes — all of which could take place at General meetings or other forums. As one example, we see the Steering Committee's proposed Chapter Resolution around geographic branches as one mechanism to deepen and expand opportunities and space for in-person discussion and debate in advance of chapter-wide votes. While we oppose this proposed bylaws amendment as written, we believe that the occasion of the 2019 Annual Convention would be an opportune time to introduce additional detail — detail grounded in a year of experience — into Article IV.  

Finally, it is our shared stance that equal time allocations is not necessarily the best metric by which to measure a commitment to democratic dialogue and debate regarding chapter-wide proposals. In many cases, working to reserve equal time allocations would not reflect the will or perspectives of the chapter — namely, that it would minimize opportunities for representative member participation and discussion in cases where there is overwhelming popular support or opposition to a proposal.