Coalition Outlines Farmers Union Election Improprieties

Care to read the whole argument from the Save Farmers Union Coalition behind their effort to oust South Dakota Farmers Union’s leadership and hold new elections? Farm Forum has posted the coalition’s brief prepared for the District 7 meeting in Aberdeen Tuesday. My summary:

The document contends first that the committee in charge of the December 2015 election at the Farmers Union convention in Huron was chosen improperly and thus could not conduct a fair election:

THE CREDENTIALS & ELECTIONS COMMITTEE: The three-member Credentials & Elections Committee lacked legal standing and was stacked to favor candidate Doug Sombke. The bylaws require that the members must be selected from a list approved by the State Board. The State Board did not recommend anyone to the committee, according to board members we asked. Instead, the committee was chosen by candidate Doug Sombke and his employee Karla Hofhenke, who serves as both Secretary-Treasurer and Executive Director of South Dakota Farmers Union. The three members must be current members of South Dakota Farmers Union. One of the three members’ membership lapsed in 2014, more than a year before the state convention elections. Those members were:

  • Ann Tornberg, committee chair, who was encouraged to vote the county membership vote for Union County, even though she knew it was “inactive” for ten years and she was disallowed by the bylaws to cast a membership vote.
  • Laura Ries, Codington-Hamlin County. Her county chapter was inactive. She had allowed her membership to lapse back in 2014, and was not eligible to participate in any official capacity at the December 2015 state convention. Her credential card was not signed legally, which will be addressed later.
  • Mary Ellen Carrack [sic—actually Cammack], Meade County. Member in good standing at the time of the election [Save Farmers Union Coalition, talking points document, 2016.04.19].

Of interest to blog readers and observers not in Farmers Union is the fact that Ann Tornberg is also the chair of the South Dakota Democratic Party.

The coalition alleges that, once seated, the Credentials and Elections Committee improperly allowed county chapters that had not held membership meetings in the year prior to convention to participate in the December election. “Inactive” county chapters included Day, Union, Codington-Hamlin, Brown, Brule, Hand, and Roberts. According to the brief, members of such inactive chapters can vote as individuals but not as delegates on behalf of other county chapter members. The brief alleges that Farmers Union secretary/treasurer and executive director Karla Hofhenke knew which chapters were inactive but did not enforce the voting rules.

The coalition further takes issue with Hofhenke’s dual role as a board-appointed officer* and an employee of Farmers Union. The brief alleges that Hofhenke assigned one of her daughters as a delegate, obtained positions for two Farmers union employees to vote as delegates, and thus violated a state law that forbids cooperative employees from promoting candidates for cooperative elected offices.

Let’s read the statute in question closely:

No cooperative funds may be used, nor any stock issued, to promote, encourage, or publicly favor the candidacy, election, or reelection of any member to any elective office within the cooperative. No employee of a cooperative may promote, encourage or publicly favor the candidacy, election, or reelection of any member to any elective office within the cooperative, provided that this shall not be construed to deprive employees, who are also members, of the right to vote in cooperative elections.

Directors and officers of any cooperative who knowingly permit such use of funds or employee activity are subject to a civil fine of not more than five hundred dollars for each offense [SDCL 47-17-4.1].

The coalition contends that SDCL 47-17-4.1 forbids votes by employees as delegates. My non-law-degree reading sees protection for employees’ right to vote in cooperative elections. The coalition’s contention depends on establishing that votes as delegates, cast on behalf of other members, rather than individual votes, cross a statutory line. The coalition may also be able to contend that Hofhenke went beyond her duties as chief election officer and promoted, encouraged, or publicly favored Sombke’s candidacy by interventions that stacked the delegate pool in her boss’s favor. The coalition contends that the election was close enough that “a change of two or three delegates’ votes would have resulted in the election of Garret Bischoff” instead of Sombke.

The coalition also alleges that Hofhenke did not allow Bischoff or his representative to witness the counting of the votes:

To cap it all off, Karla Hofhenke made sure that the only people who were allowed to count the votes of this very, very close election were the three members of the Credentials & Elections Committee (one of whom was not even a member of SDFU) and herself, Doug Sombke’s employee. And in her own words, when it came to counting the vote and not allowing a representative in the room for Garret Bischoff, “To have someone else in the room would only be an insult to those responsible for this election, since all involved are reputable members in good standing, this is a non-issue per our legal counsel” [Save Farmers Union Coalition, 2016.04.19].

Coalition members tell me the District 7 leadership did not allow them to present these arguments in full at yesterday’s meeting in Aberdeen. Whatever they were able to present was not persuasive, as the District 7 members in attendance rejected the coalition’s resolutions by huge margins.

Update 2016.04.22 05:53 CDT: I originally mislabeled Hofhenke as a board member. The board elected her to serve as secretary/treasurer, but that is not the same as being a board member.


2 Responses to Coalition Outlines Farmers Union Election Improprieties

  1. Maybe it is time for some new idea’s on how the Farmers Union should be run. Sombke and Soren have been in power for a long time. A change might be good.

  2. Greg, I’ve heard of change. I’ve voted for candidates in other areas who propose change. But if the need for change were all that was at stake, we wouldn’t be having this discussion. The Save Farmers Union Coalition would spend the time between now and the next convention/election recruiting candidates and delegates and getting out their message about the change Farmers Union needs. The need for change by itself does not justify overturning election results. The question here is whether the election was conducted improperly or even illegally.