Metro DC DSA Bylaws Revision Commission
Peter G., Chair
Kurtis H., Conor A., Brian W., Nat S., Frank F., Rachel B., Members
Preliminary Report - 10/15/2020
The Bylaws Revision Commission was established by the Steering Committee, who had been elected by the general membership on a platform including the establishment of such a commission. We were tasked with reviewing our current bylaws and creating a new, definitive text. This is our preliminary report into our findings after initial membership forums and written submissions.
We thank the dozens of members of the chapter who made written or oral submissions for their immense assistance in preparing the report, answering questions, and helping to identify potential changes (as well as concerns with changes that have been proposed).
The last time our chapter seriously reviewed our bylaws was in 2017. This convention, and the period of time leading up to it, has somewhat of a notorious reputation among the older members of the chapter.
Since that time, the chapter has gone through a significant period of expansion and consolidation, growing in membership, organization, power, skills, profile, and trust. The last item is worth repeating - members at forums regularly cited their perception that comrades within the chapter have a greater level of trust in each other than at any point in the past.
It is thus appropriate to revisit our governing documents to reflect areas where we believe there is a new consensus among the chapter, one forged out of mutual understanding and respect.
We do not know for sure that there is a consensus among all members on every item we propose. We have made good-faith efforts to reflect areas where we think a consensus does exist and to incorporate concerns, but ultimately members will get to decide. At Local Convention, they have the right to introduce amendments and have them debated and voted on. At the end of the process, the new bylaws will pass only if they achieve a 67% threshold.
We believe that the old bylaws are unfit for purpose. That is our assessment after spending an extensive amount of time reviewing member testimonies. The chapter is rife with informal practices and ignoring bylaws has become commonplace due to their either being too vague or too onerous to implement. A huge number of bodies in our bylaws simply do not exist - a source of significant confusion for new members.
In addition to this, due to poor record-keeping in the past there is substantial disagreement about what ought to be contained within the current bylaws in the first place. Members of the Commission itself remember text being passed at previous Local Conventions which is not reflected in the current text of the bylaws due to errors in compilation. There are widespread grammatical errors and duplicative sentences in the text, and very important sentences with very ambiguous meanings.
This is our preliminary report. Our findings are not final, though we do not currently intend to make significant changes to the general scheme of the proposed bylaws - for instance, our final document will continue to include a new system of priorities and will not include defunct or never-existing formations like the Auditors Working Group, Proposals Committee and Internal Organizing Committee.
We are however very open to questions, comments and suggestions about refinements to the details of our proposals, and we are extending an open offer to members who would like to propose changes to the general scheme of our suggested bylaws to assist them in drafting language that could achieve their objectives. No member should feel discouraged in suggesting amendments to our proposals - a democratic socialist organization should always be open to debate, discussion and disagreement among members.
General Cleanup, Removal of Bloat, Readability
A substantial amount of changes were included to make the document more readable, to remove duplicative or directly contradictory language, to eliminate formations which do not exist or never existed and which we have heard no support for revitalizing.
Testimony by a number of members (e.g. Doug T., Chad O., Brian W.) cited the bloated size of the bylaws - currently standing at over 8,000 words - as one of their primary concerns. We agree with them. While many sections of the new bylaws include new language, the new bylaws as a whole are considerably shorter - by over 1,500 words in the preliminary report.
This is a significant achievement in itself - with a shorter set of bylaws, members will be better capable of reading and understanding them. By writing the new bylaws as a coherent single document, we have also managed to ensure a greater thematic consistency within sections. The document is organized into numbered sections and subsections, ensuring it is easier to navigate. And by eliminating language that is not now, and is unlikely to ever be implemented, we ensure that interested members do not waste time looking for things that do not exist.
We were divided on whether there was a consensus to partially repeal the three-reader process. While no submissions were made in opposition to this proposal, only a few were made in favor. (e.g. Nat S., Ben D.). While our text retains this process, we encourage supporters of changing it to submit their proposals as an amendment - which generally are to substantially reduce the month long notice period between introduction and voting while still maintaining a slimmer notice period.
It is important to first note what we have not changed, given that a number of members submitted testimony which expressed concerns about other members’ testimony.
We acknowledge that certain testimony (e.g. Brad C., Ben D., Nat S., written submission of Kurtis H.) proposed restrictions on the formation of working groups - particularly, requiring General Body Meeting approval to establish a working group - which we do believe represent the opinions of a substantial number of members. Those who advocate this change expressed the belief that work performed by the chapter should be approved by the chapter, that this would be more democratic, and that it would help to ensure that new campaign plans are thought through and useful to our overall mission.
Certain members of this commission are sympathetic to this point of view, while others are not. We all agree, however, that there is no current consensus behind a reform of this nature. A number of submissions (Allison H., Chad O., Irene K., Doug T., Helena K.) expressed support for retaining a process by which members can form working groups independently of general body approval. The reasoning behind this generally concerns a desire to avoid bureaucratic hurdles preventing member initiatives from getting off the ground.
This debate will likely continue, and amendments may well be submitted by members who wish to add these restrictions. However, we do not propose to change the current system of permitting five members with a shared vision of work to establish a working group whose mission and activities do not violate our bylaws.
We do have support from a significantly larger group of members for changes that will improve connections between the chapter and its formations. We saw overwhelming support for the principle that working groups should report back to the chapter on their activities, mission, and strategy. (Kurtis H., Brian W., Irene K., Nikko B., Jacob W., Ryan M., Kristen B., Allison H., Gabriel R., as a sampling).
Most of these submissions, where they did not suggest stricter requirements, suggested the creation of internal points of contact and reporting requirements for working groups that would give meaning to the currently inoperative text requiring working groups to update the Steering Committee and general body on their activities, as well as in many cases the reimagining or revitalization of the Campaigns Council, a currently defunct body. We support this general course of action, and this is reflected in our bylaws text.
There have been concerns raised about proposals to implement this, mostly of a constructive nature. While we do not claim to know whether our proposals will satisfy these concerns, we are committed to making a good-faith effort to address them.
Allison H. notes that if working groups were required to set rigid goals for their organizing that this would prevent flexibility in changing strategic priorities in response to experience and notes that the working group she is involved in, Stomp Out Slumlords, was held to its original purpose and strategy that the strategic reevaluation leading to their current successful tenant organizing program would not have been possible. We think this is a valid concern. Working groups should continue to have flexibility to create and update structures, strategies, and tactics over time.
To create internal points of contact - individuals that the Steering Committee, Treasurer, Administrative Committee and other chapter bodies which have expressed difficulty in finding points of contact within certain working groups - we suggest that working groups be required to designate or elect two Stewards. In recognition that working groups have diverse structures due to the nature of their activities, and to permit the maximum amount of flexibility, we propose to permit working groups to define the role of stewards internally, other than this function as an internal liaison. Some working groups may choose to make these positions a directly elected leadership/co-chairs with additional responsibilities in coordinating the group’s efforts. For others, they may simply convey information back and forth and attend Campaigns Council meetings.
Our recommendation is to reimagine the Campaigns Council as a body which includes members of the Steering Committee, Branch delegates, and two stewards chosen by each Working Group and Priority Campaign. As we wish to keep the requirements on Working Groups flexible, while we will require working group attendance, we will not require both Stewards to attend every meeting. This means that if one Steward has to miss a meeting, the other can fill in for them. In addition, there will be no official consequences unless both stewards miss two Campaigns Council meetings in a row, which must take place over the course of two months. Additionally, recognizing that there are concerns about the relevance of some of this to Branches, we propose for now that the participation of Branch working groups in the Stewards program and Campaigns Council be voluntary.
The reason for making Campaigns Council participation mandatory is a coordination problem. Again, without taking mutual responsibility for ensuring that the Campaigns Council is a useful forum, the Steering Committee and chapter formations will not have a successful body of this nature. We propose to create an elected Campaigns Coordinator per the suggestion of Rachel B. that would take responsibility for scheduling meetings and drafting an agenda that will engage and involve these formations in cooperative work across the chapter. This individual could be held directly accountable.
Once every three months, the Campaigns Council would have a joint meeting with the Steering Committee where Steering members present could hear from the chapter stewards and make Steering-level decisions to facilitate cooperation between them.
In order to ensure that this convening of the external campaigns of the chapter and its elected political leadership is well-informed, and to provide reporting to the membership at large, working groups and Priority Committees would be expected to prepare a standard report before every joint meeting including information about their activities, strategy, mission and membership. These would be posted on a public forum available to all members of MDC DSA.
Some testimonies (Allison H., Helena K., Chad O.) raise the concern that reporting requirements and coordinative bodies will be unsuccessful unless assistance and training is provided to members and working groups. We also think this is a valid concern. We propose that reporting requirements for working groups be suspended if such assistance and training is not provided to them.
But we do think it is necessary to include reporting requirements and temporary and proportionate consequences if they are not met. Placing new, explicit, and mutual responsibilities on Steering and working groups - training and assistance to be provided by the former, reporting and collaboration to be provided by the latter - seems to be the closest thing possible to a consensus solution for achieving a nearly universal goal - one which is echoed by many members of Steering, the Administrative Committee, and working groups themselves.
We have laid out this section in the most detail because we recognize that this is a topic which has been the subject of an intense debate in MDC DSA. We think there is a consensus in favor of creating this sort of mutual accountability and connective tissue between chapter bodies, and that it would be irresponsible to ignore this desire in our report. But we also are proposing a considerably more moderate approach, informed by the concerns of sceptical voices, than has been debated by the chapter in the past.
Budget and Priorities
A huge number of submissions (e.g. Oscar V., Irene K., Ryan M., John G.) expressed a desire to create a priorities process within the chapter. We are one of the few remaining large DSA chapters without any form of official priorities, and the commission was particularly moved by testimonies from people with experience in the Member Mobilizers program and Administrative Committee who reported that new members regularly are confused as to how to get involved in the chapter and there is no formal guidance on this issue.
By setting democratic priorities we will be able to allocate funding and new volunteer resources to projects that are judged to be of crucial importance by the entire chapter. We do not propose to require these projects to alter their structure significantly. They will, however, have rights to additional funding, time and resources from the central chapter.
Annual priorities will be set at Local Convention and may be added to over the year. A limit of five priorities will be set to ensure we do not simply prioritize everything at once.
The chapter’s annual budget will be prepared by the Treasurer, in consultation with a reformed Finance Committee, and approved by the Steering Committee before being sent to the Local Convention to be finalized. The amount in the budget currently set aside for participatory budgeting will be reallocated to priorities, a participatory process which is more appropriate for non-state institutions without a large capital budget (per testimony of Brian W., Treasurer)
Other chapter formations
We found no consensus on changes to be made to caucuses. This section is left unchanged.
We eliminate the now-defunct Internal Organizing Committee and transfer its functions to the extremely active and capable Administrative Committee, which has already been assigned these tasks as a contingency by the Steering Committee. A number of submissions from Administrative Committee members (e.g. Ryan M., Kristen H.) suggest that this is a task which they are more than capable of continuing to do.
We received assurances from the Secretary that no further changes were required to implement the ongoing internal restructuring of the Administrative Committee.
The Finance Committee is currently non-functional as a self-selecting body. We make it an appointed body similar to the Administrative Committee, permitting its potential future use by Treasurers in budget preparation without the worry of having to make sensitive member data available to a group which could potentially include unknown and unvetted individuals.
Electoral Work and Endorsements
We are incredibly grateful to Irene K. and Stuart K., two of the chapter’s most experienced electoral organizers, for producing a serious and credible proposal for reforming our political engagement processes. We have largely reproduced their suggestions in the bylaws text.
Steering Accountability and Structure
We saw a strong consensus in favor of enshrining the principle that the chapter should speak in a single voice - that is, that MDC DSA itself cannot be for and against the same thing at the same time, and that obligations incurred on behalf of the chapter as a whole should be approved either by all members or their elected representatives, and that decisions made by the general membership should supersede decisions of elected representatives where they conflict.
We think that this principle will become increasingly important as the chapter grows larger and more powerful within the region, as Stuart K. and Irene K’s testimony attests to in respect of electoral candidates.
We also saw strong support from members of the Steering Committee for the formalization of the portfolios system. The current Steering Committee, unlike previous Steering Committees, took on a specific division of labor, assigning responsibility for specific areas of current work and chapter development to each member. This has, by all accounts, resulted in a far more accountable and productive working environment internally.
We received testimony that the Steering Committee could be more transparent about its portfolios, and that it should also have reporting requirements. We agree with this. The Steering Committee should be required to make a yearlong plan of work and descriptions of portfolios and their holders’ name, last initial, and contact info available to all members within a month of taking office, and the Chair should be responsible for updating members at least every two months as to the plan of work’s progress.
Branches will be required to use standard terminology to describe their steering committees and officers, while being permitted to vary their internal governance otherwise.
New branches will be provided with a standard charter which can be amended after six months.
We received testimony for and against Branch representation on the Steering Committee. We found consensus that enhanced participation rights for Branch representatives would be helpful but that granting voting rights to Branches could create a double-representation problem in which members in Montgomery County and Northern Virginia would be able to run for and vote for every other position on the Steering Committee in addition to their own carve-out seats.
Attempts to address this by allocating seats through geographical constituencies instead of at-large would make the current system of gender and racial quotas impossible to maintain and could have a deleterious impact on the cohesion of the chapter as a whole by removing the requirement for most of the Steering Committee to be accountable to the entire chapter.
All branches will be able to appoint a Branch Delegate, effectively a non-voting member of the Steering Committee (and ex officio a member of the new Campaigns Council) with full participation rights, including attendance at executive sessions, and branches will have autonomy over the appointment or election procedures per recommendation of Frank F.
The right to electronic attendance and participation at in-person General Body Meetings will be secured to the greatest extent possible. We are deferring to the Administrative Committee and Steering Committee to work out the technical aspects of this, but wish to include language on the matter to ensure that it is clearly a requirement, given that this is an issue of significant concern not just to Branch members for whom travel is infeasible but also to a number of disabled members.
We believe that more work needs to be done on the issue of Branches. We addressed some of the most important issues in this report, but the question of how to best represent and include all our members and fight for democratic socialism in the entire Metro DC region is still an open one.
This is not our final report, and we would note that some of the commission members responsible for drafting had significant adverse life events during the most recent part of the process which made completion of a preliminary report quite difficult. We would ask for understanding if we have failed to include a rationale for any significant change, and will ensure that they are covered in the final report text.
However we do believe that we have covered most of the major areas, and that this report and the accompanying bylaws text will produce a basis for substantially more informed discussion during the next phase of the process, as we hold more member forums (including one with the Steering Committee) and enter the run-up to the convention.
We invite continued participation and feedback by members in the #bylaws-reform channel on the chapter Slack, and ourselves as well as the Convention Committee (chaired by Gabriel R.) will continue to notify members of opportunities to get involved in chapter discussions and forums about the bylaws.
The proposed bylaws are attached below. Thank you for your engagement with this process.
- Metro DC DSA Bylaws Revision Commission