This week, the roughly 76,000 members of Coast Central Credit Union will receive board member election ballots for the first time in nine years.
That’s how long it’s been since the local not-for-profit financial institution held a contested election for seats on its nine-member board of directors. Openings on the board are rare because, even though board members volunteer their time, they tend to serve for many years — even decades.
In 2019, for example, Robert Gearheart retired after nearly 40 years on the board. However, because he retired in the middle of a three-year term, there was no election to fill his spot. Instead, a subcommittee of the board appointed his replacement. When board member Joyce Jury retired in 2020 after nearly 30 years on the board, a replacement was again appointed by the board subcommittee.
Technically, Coast Central holds an election every January for three of the nine seats on the board, but over the past decade there hasn’t been much competition. In fact, for nine years straight the number of seats available was equal to the number of candidates, meaning the incumbents won re-election more or less by default.
But now, a group of first-time candidates, who’ve dubbed themselves the “members voice slate,” has secured spots on the ballot through a signature-gathering effort, and they’re aiming to unseat a pair of incumbents by advocating for increased member involvement and wider-ranging community investments.
There are also two additional new candidates — Kassidy Banducci and Dane Valadao — who qualified through Coast Central’s standard nominating process, which requires submitting a six-page application and meeting the minimum requirements. The nominating committee — a subset of the board — then nominates “at least one member for each position available,” according to the official procedures.
Two incumbents, John Gladding and Kelly Walsh, are running for reelection while the third, Robin Bailie, has bowed out.
That means that after nine years with zero election drama, Coast Central now has seven candidates pursuing just three open seats on its board of directors.
The competition comes at a high point in the institution’s success. Established in 1979 through the merger of two older credit unions, Coast Central has grown into the region’s largest member-owned financial institution, employing more than 300 people across its 11 branches, including locations in Crescent City, Hoopa and Weaverville. Each year, Coast Central gives away more than $200,000 to local nonprofits, and in April of 2021 it surpassed $2 billion in assets.
The “members voice” candidates
The “members voice” slate of candidates believes Coast Central can accomplish more with such assets. The slate consists of Rees Hughes, James Kloor and Maricela Aceves Wexler, all of whom recently sat down at a local coffee house to discuss their candidacies and their ideas for how to improve Coast Central.
Kloor, who is employed as the director of finance at the Humboldt Area Foundation and Wild Rivers Community Foundation, said he and his fellow candidates learned a lot during their signature-gathering campaign, which involved standing outside with pens, clipboards and petitions at places like the North Coast Co-op, Arts Alive and famers markets, where they engaged with Coast Central members.
“We collected over 650 signatures, which was exciting,” Kloor said, “and the thing that we heard most often from folks was, ‘I didn’t even realize that I could vote for the board of directors!’”
“Or, ‘When is there ever an election? I don’t remember an election,’” said Hughes, a former administrator at Humboldt State University and writer of local hiking guides.
Wexler, an independent project manager, said there seems to be a bit of a disconnect between the institution and its membership.
“I didn’t realize when I became a member that I was a member-owner,” she said. “It wasn’t clear to me what that means and what is then possible for engagement. I think there are missed opportunities to communicate with membership, and I’d really like to serve in a way that gives people the opportunity, if they choose, to participate more fully.”
Kloor agrees. He has long been involved with the North Coast Co-op, including a stint on its board of directors. He has participated in many Co-op board meetings, which can be spirited, well-attended events, as well as its annual membership meeting.
As a member of Coast Central, he wanted to see what its annual membership meeting looked like. He hoped to attend the 2021 gathering but couldn’t find information about it online until after the date had passed. For last year’s meeting he had a scheduling conflict, but he sent a group of friends who reported back to him.
“And they were the only members — other than the board and some staff — who showed up,” Kloor said. “And the annual meeting was only five minutes long! When [my friends] came back and told me that I was like, ‘That is absolutely wild.’”
Kloor said that if he’s elected, he’d like to reshape what the annual meeting looks like — “because it should be the meeting for the members, right? It should be a big thing. It should be broadcast far and wide. Folks should come; there should be member comment periods. So yeah, that’s my personal drive.”
Wexler has engaged with various nonprofit boards — including the board of Dell’Arte International — through her organizational development and fundraising work, and she said she has seen how meaningful change can be effected at that level.
Shortly after longtime Dell’Arte board member Peter Pennekamp joined the Coast Central board in 2019, he approached Wexler to see if she was interested in joining the board. At the time, she didn’t have the capacity given her other obligations, but when he checked back again recently she took a closer look and after interviewing current board members and doing some research she decided to run.
“There’s so many opportunities here that I think are missed,” she said. “The more that I learned about what could be possible in terms of Coast Central playing a role in local economic equity or housing equity, it really perked my interest because I was like, ‘Oh, there’s some opportunity here that I think I would like to give my energy and time to.’”
As a state-chartered 501(c)(14) credit union, Coast Central is tax exempt and operates on a not-for-profit basis for the mutual benefit of its membership. Since 2008, Coast Central has awarded more than $2 million in grants to local organizations through its Community Investment Program. Just this past fall it gave tens of thousands of dollars to local organizations including local senior centers, volunteer fire districts, the Eureka Rescue Mission and Crescent City’s Lighthouse Repertory Theatre.
The “members voice” slate believes there’s room to do more. Kloor looked up Coast Central’s recent tax filings online and saw that it had awarded about $245,000 in grants per year.
“For an organization that has a net asset value of $2 billion, that is a really small percentage,” Kloor said. “So I personally would like to see more go towards those community grants and scholarships, to kind of support businesses in that way. And I would also like to just see more reinvestment into some of our more far-reaching areas.”
As an example he noted that Coast Central removed ATMs that were located inside the Crescent City Safeway, and some members now feel unsafe using the drive-up ATMs when they need to withdraw cash after normal business hours. He’d like to see new ones installed in a safer-feeling indoor location.
Hughes has been a Coast Central member for 34 years and he said it’s been exciting to watch it grow.
“I feel like [that growth] comes with some responsibility to be an active part of the community,” he said. He also believes that a certain amount of responsibility comes from Coast Central’s status as a nonprofit in the financial world. “My sense is that as it has grown, it has the chance to do more than it’s done, and I’d like to see that realized,” he said.
He has a few ideas of his own, such as exploring the possibility of term limits on the board, but he said he doesn’t want to get too specific with his own preconceived ideas.
“I feel like if we’re going to make it a member organization [it’s important] that we don’t come in with a lot of prescriptions about how the retained earnings get spent,” he said. “Most of it is about member involvement and member education and understanding at some level what it means to be a member of a credit union. But also a chance to do some things that are more member-driven rather than staff-driven or strictly board-driven.”
Kloor suggested that membership meetings could be rotated among branch locations, giving members at more far-flung branches like Hoopa and Weaverville a more direct connection to the institution.
“As a financial institution, I think they do a really good job, right?” Kloor said. “Customer satisfaction is super high. The way that they treat all their members in the branches is really highly regarded. There’s just more of these member interaction things — the things that differentiate a credit union from a bank — that I think they could lean into a little bit more.”
“And similarly, when someone become a member, how are you welcoming people into a member-ownership role?” Wexler said. She suggested that Coast Central could give new members a more comprehensive welcome packet. “But that’s also going to take a discussion of okay, well, what does it mean? What when we say you’re a member-owner, what does Coast Central mean by that?”
Kloor said he was happy to see that two other challengers are pursuing seats on the board, and he believes his slate’s canvassing efforts already helped to boost member engagement and awareness.
“The member education piece of this has been really exciting,” he said. “And if by the three of us running we encouraged two other folks to run, that’s super exciting. Like, that doesn’t even feel like competition. To me that just feels like community.”
Hughes agreed, saying, “The bottom line of what we’re trying to achieve is to have regular elections with community engagement.”
“Yeah,” Wexler chimed in. “It doesn’t have to be us, but the membership can choose and have the opportunity to choose their board.”
“We’d like it to be us,” Hughes quickly added, “but I think we’re happy that there’s an election.”
The other challengers
Born in Fortuna and raised in Eureka, licensed architect Kassidy Banducci pursued her higher education at University of Oregon before returning to Humboldt County, where she worked at various local architecture firms before landing her current job as director of planning, design and construction at Cal Poly Humboldt.
Banducci serves on various local boards, mostly related to youth sports, such as the nonprofit Humboldt Youth Soccer League.
She also serves on her church congregation council and has been a member of the City of Eureka’s Design Review Committee for more than a decade.
In a phone interview Wednesday, Banducci said that as a member of Coast Central, she got interested in running for the board while thinking about its potential for growth into the future.
”What excited me is things change over time,” she said. “Growth happens, and the community about to expand with all this growth and development.” Here she was referring to the expansion of Cal Poly Humboldt as well as the development of offshore wind energy facilities.
“I felt could bring a unique perspective when it comes to development and community growth,” she said. “A lot of my work is in capital projects. I would imagine that as the community grows. the credit union would expand as well.”
She echoed some of the sentiments from the “members voice” slate about bridging the divide between the credit union and its members. “Expanded mission and outreach to the community is going be important as we have people moving in from outside [the county],” she said.
In her official candidate statement, Banducci says she considers her greatest accomplishments to be her two children and getting to raise them with her husband in this beautiful community.
“Whether I am leading a team or designing, I am hands-on and involved with the ability to solve complex problems,” the statement says. “My eye for detail will bring a unique perspective to the board and the credit union.”
Dane Valadao is a partner and chief operating officer for local mortgage lender ReProp Financial. Reached by phone on Tuesday, Valadao said he’s a longtime member of Coast Central.
“They’ve done a lot for me and my family, banking-wise and financing wise,” he said.
Asked about his background and reasons for running, Valadao volunteered to send along his candidate statement, which outlines his higher education, from a soccer scholarship to Humboldt State University through a transfer to Louisiana State University, where he earned his undergraduate degree in business and later an MBA with an emphasis on financing.
“I have a background in real estate and development and profound understanding in financing those activities,” his statement says. “I live in McKinleyville with my wife and three children (soon to be four). I have volunteered on boards, coaching youth sports, and am currently in my second term on the Board of Directors for the Greater Eureka Chamber of Commerce and the current Treasurer.”
Kelly Walsh, an attorney with the Eureka firm of Matthews, Kluck, Walsh, Wykle and Latt, has been a Coast Central member for 30 years and a member of its board of directors for the past 13.
In a brief phone interview and follow-up emails, Walsh took issue with some of the statements being made in this campaign by the “members voice” slate. In particular, he objected to the statement on their website that elections have not been happening at Coast Central.
The website goes on to say, “This January’s election will be the first in nine years and is only happening now because Rees, James and Maricela forced the issue by petitioning the membership directly to get on the ballot.”
“That is completely and utterly false,” Walsh said in a phone conversation late last week. “There’s an election of the board of directors every single year.”
He attributed the relative dearth of challengers over the past decade to “good board policies and very good management and staff,” adding that his time on the board has been enjoyable and he’s grateful for such a dedicated staff and board.
“Experience matters,” he said. “During the time I’ve been on the board Coast Central went from about $900 million in assets to over $2 billion in assets.”
He later noted in an email that for 2022, the board of directors approved $436,000 in grants to local projects, scholarships to local high school graduates and sponsorships of various local organizations.
“For 2023, the Board has approved $650,000 for such charitable causes, much of the increase resulting from the Board’s approval of a new Charitable Donations Account which is intended as the underpinning of a charitable foundation fund,” he continued. “Coast Central also funds many local projects, such as the Gene Lucas Community Center and McLean Campus in Fortuna.”
In our interview he said the board has a duty to keep the credit union financially sound.
“From the revenues we generate, we use that money to fund higher savings rates for our members [compared to] the competition,” he said. “During the recent historically low period for interest rates, our savings rates were significantly higher than other institutions.” Because Coast Central is not profit driven, he said, assets can be returned to members in the form of better rates.
In his follow-up email, Walsh again took aim at some of the messaging from the “members voice” slate.
“Contrary to some contentions by others,” he wrote, “Coast Central does have a specific job description for the Board of Directors, funds numerous community projects and we actively maintain numerous methods for members to communicate their praise or concerns, including twice-a-year member surveys, comment cards, correspondence, contact information on our website, via phone and via our mobile banking app. It is not by happenstance that member satisfaction is over 94%.”
He also noted that the current board established a pilot program that provides safe and regulated banking services for 276 members involved in the cannabis businesses. Banking has been a major challenge for people involved in the nascent legal industry, forcing many to risk carrying large sums of cash.
His email touted Coast Central’s accomplishments during his tenure on the board, noting that the credit union successfully navigated through the Great Recession and the COVID pandemic.
“This success has allowed Coast Central to provide our members excellent savings rates (ours are triple the national average) and loan rates (our mortgage rates are the lowest in our market), fund numerous local projects, business ventures, home and auto loans, and make generous charitable contributions every year (during my tenure on the board, charitable contributions to the community have tripled).
Fellow incumbent John Gladding did not respond to a request for comment. His ballot statement notes that he’s a veteran of the U.S. Navy and earned a bachelor’s degree in economics and his MBA from Humboldt State University.
Gladding has worked as an accountant and business loan officer, and for nine years he was the executive director of the Humboldt County chapter of the American Red Cross, where he still volunteers.
“I have always been impressed by the high level of service from all Coast Central Credit Union employees and by its steady and responsible growth,” he says in his statement. “As a reelected board member, I will ensure that the credit union will continue its success and be efficiently run so we can keep loan rates as low as possible and savings rates as high as possible.”
Gladding says he has the training and experience necessary to help accomplish those goals, and he attributes Coast Central’s “stable growth and high standing with regulators” to the success of its management teams.
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Many Coast Central members have already received their ballots. They have until the end of the month to fill them out by voting for their three chosen candidates and mail them back to the Minnesota-based accounting firm of CliftonLarsonAllen. To be counted, ballots must be received by Tuesday, Jan. 31.
Election results will be announced at the next annual member meeting, which is scheduled for Thursday, Feb. 16 at 6 p.m. at Coast Central’s Harrison Avenue branch in Eureka.