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My Turn: Shareholders still waiting for equality

Posted: Thursday, June 18, 2009

Last year, at Sealaska Corporation's annual meeting in San Francisco, I addressed the company's board of directors regarding a flawed and unjust election system that utilizes discretionary votes to re-seat incumbent directors again and again and again. Some have been in there for nearly 40 years!

The system, which one "re-elected" director described as the most democratic ever, discriminates against its own shareholders and demeans the qualifications of independent candidates. It demonstrates the kind of treatment that Alaska Natives have fought to overcome for more than a century, ironically, with major victories being our right to vote and the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA).

Sealaska's election process is so appallingly unfair that Barbara Cadiente-Nelson - an independent candidate last year and again this year - was advised by a Sealaska staff member during the San Francisco meeting that she "didn't make it in." This injudicious disclosure was dropped on Barbara's shoulders early in the morning before she was able to deliver her campaign speech and before the official announcement of election results was made by the inspector of elections at the end of the day. One can only surmise that their staff member was privy to when and how discretionary votes were divvied up amongst the incumbent directors in order to overcome Barbara's significant lead over them.

Yet, Sealaska directors went through the motions of shaking Barbara's hand, telling her "good luck," and their incumbents delivered their campaign speeches although they already knew they were "in" due to the advantage of discretionary votes. I cannot grasp how this kind of artificial "victory" is something anyone can assert with pride to their children and families. In fact, while Sealaska's board touts their practice of utilizing "discretionary" votes to seal their wins as being legitimate; conversely, they flatly refuse to disclose the number of "directed" votes they actually receive. If there's no shame in their practice, why is this information kept secret?

With the acceleration of heartfelt shareholder support and increasing winning numbers for Barbara Cadiente-Nelson this year, Sealaska incumbent directors were told to get out there and campaign, something they previously felt was unbecoming - a seemingly arrogant sentiment since, thus far, they've been guaranteed the ability to remain in office without so much as breaking a sweat on their brow to be re-elected. In a desperate attempt to thwart Barbara's possible victory and stave off shareholder support for term limits, Sealaska is extravagantly spending corporate dollars to host elaborate receptions, procure radio adds and send out more mailings to further solicit votes for their board slate, despite that independent candidates were charged for election material and told, "We have to recover our costs."

At the recent annual meeting of Goldbelt, Incorporated, the announcement by the inspector of elections that no discretionary votes would be used to seat directors was met with distinct applause of approval by its shareholders. Goldbelt is among other ANCSA corporations that have decisively restored the honor of their shareholders' choice during elections by doing away with use of discretionary votes. In Goldbelt elections, all candidates are equitably provided with the same election material at no cost to them and the corporation does not pay for campaign costs of incumbent directors.

Sealaska argues their need to protect the experience on the board, although their newest appointment occurred only in April of this year. So controlling and paternalistic they are that they can't muster up respect and appreciation for the intelligence and ability of its shareholders to decide through the election who they believe is qualified to fill that vacancy. We are the same shareholders who are adept in studying and cautiously weighing political platforms before casting proficient and informed votes for the President of the United States, and deciding who we feel is qualified to serve as our senators and representatives in Congress.

In campaign speeches by incumbent directors last year, one stated - about our younger shareholders, many who are leaders in their own right - "We just want to put our arms around them." Another said, "We've got to bring them in." They have a strange way of showing it. While waiting for this to happen, many of us have become parents, grandparents and even great-grandparents.

• Andrea Cadiente-Laiti is a Sealaska and Goldbelt Shareholder. She is also the delegate to the Central Council of the Tlingit & Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska and a council member of the Tlingit & Haida Indians of the City & Borough of Juneau.



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