Many states, including Wisconsin, allow for a legal structure for cooperative businesses. Credit unions have been at the forefront of such movements. The structure of a credit union is, in many ways, quite revolutionary in theory. With an initial deposit of $25 in savings, a depositor becomes a member of the cooperative able to elect board members, and thus, theoretically, can influence policy. But as some cooperatives become more established and grow, the concept of “member-owned” becomes more theory than practice for them. My experience with Heartland Credit Union since the beginning of 2023, and in particular their annual meeting on May 23, 2023, illustrates this quite clearly.
Heartland Credit Union lays a mid-winter egg
During the first week of January of this year, I began to see some alarming trends with the customer service at Heartland Credit Union. It became impossible to get through to their switchboard, much less any of the departments. I would be on hold, and then was told to leave a voicemail and someone would get back to me. I tried to call the Williamson Street branch that I used to work with a lot, but their direct number was simply redirected back to the non-functioning switchboard.
I was aware that in 2022, Heartland had merged with Dane County Credit Union, with the merger becoming effective in October, and so it occurred to me that Heartland was probably going through growing pains. But nevertheless, I needed to speak with someone. After going back and forth with Quickbooks over problems synchronizing between my business bank account and Quickbooks Online, they recommended that I contact Heartland. My request had some degree of urgency: I had an accountant lined up but I couldn’t get the process for tax filing started until I cleaned up some of the synchronization errors between Quickbooks and Heartland.
So I left a voicemail. I also sent a direct message to Heartland through a general “Contact us” form, and someone there did respond, apologizing for the difficulties which I was assured were temporary, and offered to provide me with a “resource document.” But by that time, someone had also responded to the voicemail and they said that they’d connect me with the technology department. But I got no response from that department. I followed up again a week later and was told they would get back to me, but they didn’t. I tried getting in touch with the person who had responded to my “Contact us” message asking if they could send me the document and if they could also give me the email addresses of Heartland’s board president and board vice president, but they didn’t get back to me either.
Don’t you dare talk to the board members!
Hearing no response by the end of the response, I tried calling the switchboard again. This time, I managed to get through. She said she’d have the department get back to me. I also asked again for the email addresses of the board president and vice president. The switchboard operator put me on hold, and then returned, informing me that it was not Heartland’s policy to give out the email addresses of board members, and gave me the email of the CEO instead.
This was ridiculous. We elected the board, just as those of us in Madison elected president Biden, Senators Tammy Baldwin and Ron Johnson, and Rep. Marc Pocan to represent our interests, not to mention local legislators and alders. We have email addresses for them. Why shouldn’t we have email addresses for the board members we elected, or at least some general mailbox for the board that someone can monitor and respond as needed?
Furthermore, after seeing such an extreme and unprecedented plunge in the quality of service, it only made sense that I contact the board president and vice president. Were they even aware how bad things had gotten? If not, they needed to know. The CEO was brand new, and I was under no assumption that this was necessarily her fault. But I had been a member of Heartland for 20 years by this point—literally to the month—and I had never seen such a steep decline in the quality of service in any financial institution I’d banked at. I had considerable experience in the past as a board member of two other cooperatives—Madison Community Cooperative, where I’d served stints as treasurer and board president, and Union Cab of Madison, where I’d served two years as chair of their Finance Committee. While Heartland is, by necessity, structured differently than either of the above, it doesn’t change the fact that the members of the credit union are its owners. I knew I deserved better than what I was getting.
Blocked from talking to any board members, and STILL not hearing from the department regarding my tech issues, I contacted the CEO on February 8 hoping that she would be able to address the issue. I demanded three things: 1) Quick resolution of the online banking issue with Quickbooks Online. 2) An explanation for what appears to be a systematic collapse of service at Heartland Credit Union, and 3) the email addresses of Heartland’s board president and vice president.
Impressively, she responded within 21 minutes. She explained she was at a conference but would get to the bottom of this. She followed up the next morning saying that I would get a call from someone to address these issues.
I actually got a call from two people. One of them attempted to address the connection issue by downloading Quickbooks and playing with it, but he didn’t get very far. By that point I’d made enough manual changes in Quickbooks to get the tax filing process going. The second call, however came from someone who said he recognized my name–and I immediately recognized his. He used to be the branch manager at the Williamson Street branch, and I used to deal with him frequently as my co-op house’s treasurer. I remember him being an absolute pleasure to work with. He said that the CEO forwarded my email to me and that he felt horrible reading it. He gave me a little bit more background on the merger and how it affected. He answered my questions. While it didn’t really address my fundamental issues, it felt really good to talk to someone for once who actually knew me. As a business owner, good banking relationships give us comfort.
The CEO ignored my third demand—for the email address for Heartland Credit Union’s board president and vice president. And I still felt concerned about the disconnect between the board and the membership. So I decided to try to address it at Heartland Credit Union’s annual meeting. I signed up and was emailed the link.
The annual “meeting”
That meeting was this past Tuesday. I dug up the email and I saw the Zoom link. I saw the 2022 annual report and it had the agenda. The agenda had the obligatory “reports” and a section for “old business” and “new business.” But it wasn’t clear if this agenda just applied to Board members or if it applied to all of the members in attendance. There was no clear place for members to give input on the agenda.
The meeting started promptly at 4:00. There were probably about 30 or so people on the Zoom call. Our microphones were muted. They marched through the reports quite quickly using standard Robert’s Rules of Order. The reports, of course, were glowing. Heartland was doing great and could do no wrong. At one point, the CEO said “Thank you for your patience with this transition.” At the end of the reports, the board chair put forward a motion to accept all the reports.
Suddenly we got a message letting us know that the host was asking permission to unmute our mics. Oh, boy—they were going to give us a chance to say “Aye!” I opted not to. I wasn’t there just to say “Aye” or “Nay” to whatever they were spoonfeeding us.
The board chair marched on through the meeting. “Any old business?” She waited a few seconds. Hearing none, she said, “Any new business?” She waited two seconds before she said, “Hearing none.” She then asked if there were any questions in the chat page of the Zoom call.
Chat questions? They never told us that they were taking questions in the chat, so there were none. The board chair continued, “Seeing none…” I heard one woman say, “Hey, wait a minute…” and I began to type something in the chat explaining that we were not told in advance that we would have a chance to ask questions. The board chair continued, “The meeting is now adjourned. Thank you for attending,” and the Zoom screen immediately disappeared before I could finish my chat message. The annual meeting had lasted 20 minutes.
Of course, Heartland’s board chair had just engaged in one of the oldest parliamentary obfuscation tricks in the book: race through the agenda using Robert’s Rules and end the meeting before anyone had a chance to figure out what was going on. By giving us the opportunity to say “aye”, the board chair was acknowledging that we the members had the power, But there was no explanation to attendees as to what to expect. No copy of relevant bylaws outlining members’ powers in these meetings was made available. No invitation was extended to permit attendees to speak. From the standpoint of the meeting conveners, the shorter the meeting and the less that was said, the better.
Democracy as a quaint little theory
Robert’s Rules of Order has been used for over a century as a means of inhibiting democracy. The rules are intimidating to those not familiar with it. It requires a legalistic type of thinking that can be alien to a lot of people. Blogger Jan Edmiston points out, when “there is a single person with the power to decide who gets to speak and for how long and how often, it’s possible that some voices will be less likely to speak – unless the Moderator of the meeting is skilled at including everyone.” And wow, the board president Absolutely. Was. Not. Skilled. At. This. I don’t think she cared that she wasn’t.
I can hear the objection that we can’t let members interfere too much in the day to day operations of the credit union. As a former executive director of a small non-profit reporting to a board of 24 people, and as the former board president of Madison Community Co-op, I understand this better than most people. When I served as the executive director of a small non-profit, my board gave me a lot of day-to-day leeway, as they knew that too much interference would make my life miserable. They gave general guidance and then gave me leeway to carry it out. As board president, I did the same thing for staff, though I did occasionally ask tough questions that staff sometimes resented me for. In addition to supervising, those of us on the board’s executive committee would also sometimes act as a buffer between members and staff, which was useful with the occasional co-op member that absolutely could not take “no” for an answer. Indeed, once the Madison Community Co-op board began to intervene more in the day-to-day affairs of the organization in the name of “democracy,” the staff turnover increased rapidly. Madison Community Co-op became known as one of the most horrible places in Madison to work, and it also fell on much greater financial problems.
But Heartland Credit Union takes things to the opposite extreme. Their board leadership clearly sees democracy as a nice little formality but too much of a headache to actually engage with.
And this is too bad. At a time when we are once again worried about bank failures in the United States, credit unions are supposed to be an alternative to banks that could care less about the community in which they serve. Our communities face some difficult times ahead, and many financial institutions could be faced with some very difficult decisions about supporting communities during hard times.
When times get tough, are our financial institutions going to be engaged in our communities or go AWOL on us? Heartland said in their annual report “Heartland is proud to be a member-owned financial cooperative serving you, your businesses, and our communities.” But what I have seen of them over the last six months is not giving me that confidence.