November 2017 Letter from Board Co-Chairs

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Hi all,

We hope everyone had a wonderful Thanksgiving holiday. A couple NACA members have posted concerns about the updated criteria for NACA membership, the process of developing those criteria, and various other things. While we’re all for open discussion of the issues affecting us as NACA members, several of the recent statements made were factually incorrect. At the NCLC conference in Washington, D.C., six members of the current NACA Board (Stacy Bardo, Dave Philipps, Brian Bromberg, Mike Quirk, Carolyn Coffey and Peter Holland) met with Bernard Brown in person for over an hour. They discussed with him why each of his points was factually incorrect, and urged him to consider acting in a more constructive manner. However, his after-conference email and those of another member show that a misconception still exists about the membership criteria. (Oddly, these emails were initially posted on the auto fraud listserv, which is not even run by NACA—it’s NCLC's listserv.)

We are writing to you to correct that misconception:

1. The Membership Expansion Taskforce and Board solicited input from members throughout the process of developing the updated membership criteria.

The membership criteria were updated with full disclosure to NACA’s membership. NACA members had numerous opportunities to get involved, raise concerns, and have input long before the updated criteria were put in place. In fact, Bernard himself had direct input into the criteria.

The idea of addressing NACA’s membership criteria was first discussed in detail at the October 2015 board meeting. The Board and staff prepare surveys which are sent to all NACA members, and the information collected in these surveys is relied on by the Board to set priorities for strategic planning and member services. From the member survey conducted in 2015, the Board could see that one third of our members, while comfortable financially, had limited funds for “extras” such as professional development—and another third were really struggling financially. Meanwhile, the average NACA member’s dues only cover about 50% of the money needed to provide services to that member. (For legal services members, the association is absorbing 85% of the costs.) And the majority of our members pay for their membership out of their own pockets.

At the same time, 90% of members reported high levels of satisfaction with the services NACA provides, and 87% said they feel NACA membership increases their success. Members placed particular value on both the listservs and on NACA’s advocacy and lobbying work. So before deciding to significantly raise dues and/or decrease services, the Board (chaired at that time by Stuart Rossman and Stacy Bardo) decided it made sense to commission a volunteer group of NACA members to explore whether it would be possible to expand our membership ranks, by making our criteria more transparent and more fairly applied, so that we would be a more welcoming organization, while remaining consistent with the organization’s mission. 

A Taskforce was formed and began work in January 2016. By June 2016, the Taskforce had completed its proposed updates to the membership criteria. Even though both the Membership and Ethics Committees (the two committees that work on membership issues) were already represented on the Taskforce, the Taskforce co-chairs sent its proposal to both committees for their feedback. The Taskforce did not receive any comments from either committee, but it did receive three sets of comments from individual committee members—including four pages of comments from Bernard Brown, who was the chair of the Ethics Committee. The Taskforce reviewed and considered all the input it received and even made changes to the proposed updated criteria in response to Bernard’s suggestions. The Taskforce then passed on the revised proposed criteria to the Board, which made its own revisions and then adopted the criteria.

Meanwhile, the Board kept the membership informed. When Leslie joined Stacy as co-chair of the Board in Fall 2016, our top priorities were transparency and communication. We started writing regular letters to the NACA membership to update everyone on what NACA’s Board and staff efforts. The very first co-chairs’ letter in December 2016 featured a long section on the Membership Expansion Taskforce. We invited anyone who was interested in getting more info on—or having input into—the Taskforce’s work to reach out the co-chairs, Leslie and Mike Quirk, and provided their phone numbers and email addresses. (Neither Leslie nor Mike heard from a single member.) Another update was sent to members in June 2017. Then October 2017, Stacy and Leslie sent a third letter out to all NACA members providing detailed information about the membership criteria. They invited anyone with questions or concerns to contact them directly, and again provided contact info. They also encouraged members to reach out to their state chairs or other board members. Moreover, the proposed criteria were also shared with many of the moderators of many of NACA’s listservs. The Board heard back from only a couple members, and we responded to their questions.

The notion that this work was somehow done without informing NACA members, or without the opportunity for members and member leaders to have input, is just not true.

2. The updated membership criteria do not open NACA up to "car dealer lawyers" or others whose work is adverse to consumers.

All the Board did was to formalize and clarify the criteria that were already being used. Previously, there were no clear published criteria for NACA membership. A person who wanted to join NACA was directed to several different, overlapping sources of detailed information on different webpages, some of which were recommendations that hadn’t ever been approved by the Board as actual membership criteria. There was no way of telling whether you was eligible for membership other than to apply and see what happened. And because decision makers did not have a clear list of requirements, membership decisions were arbitrary and different standards were applied by different people. When an application was denied, it was extremely difficult for NACA staff to tell the applicant what requirement(s) the person had failed to meet.

 There wasn’t even a written process in place for vetting applicants. Once someone submitted an application for membership, it could take weeks—or even months—for a final decision. Often several rounds of follow-up questions were asked, and additional research done by staff or members, all without the applicant ever being directly told what the requirements for membership were. While it’s impossible to know how many potential members were turned away by the combination of confusing guidelines and an onerous process, it’s easy to see why many have found the process confusing at best—and discouraging at worst. We figured that by clarifying what’s actually required to join NACA, we could also make the organization more welcoming, which would encourage consumer advocates to want to join our community.

Now, for the first time, the criteria for NACA membership are transparent, uniform, and published for all to see. The criteria also make clear, for the first time, that failing to provide truthful answers to application questions is grounds for denial. While there is still room for discretion on a case-by-case basis, as there must be, it will now be possible to identify the specific reason an application needs further information or was denied. If anything, this makes the criteria stronger than the amorphous collection of overlapping “guidelines” that previously existed.

As for the concern that the updated membership criteria will permit car dealership owners (who are also consumer lawyers) to join NACA, it’s worth noting that ownership of such a business was not explicitly disqualifying under the old criteria—and we aren’t aware of any car dealer lawyers who are currently members or who have ever applied for membership. But more importantly, under the updated criteria, NACA decision makers are empowered to consider “all available information” to determine whether an applicant’s affiliation with a business is “adverse to consumers such that NACA membership is inappropriate.” Car dealers are listed among the “range of businesses that our clients regularly litigate against due to deceptive, predatory, and/or similar behavior,” and therefore subject to rejection.

NACA’s well-qualified State Chairs and Ethics Committee members are not going to suddenly fill NACA with car dealer/lawyers. If anything, the vetting process is now stronger than it was before. In September 2017, we held a training for all Member Leaders—listserv moderators, committee members, and state chairs were all invited, and the training was recorded and is available here. They, along with NACA’s excellent staff, are well-equipped to ensure that consumer advocates are accepted and those whose work is contrary to NACA’s mission are not. Moreover, admission is still subject to review by our Executive Director, Ira Rheingold, as well as by the Board.

Moreover, even if the mythical car dealer/lawyer gets through all of these checks, they are subject to a referral to the Ethics Committee. In fact, any member who engages in conduct that is inconsistent with NACA’s mission, violates the NACA Member Code of Conduct, or who no longer meets the requirements for membership may be removed. If NACA staff sees that a member has changed organizations, or a member brings a concern about another member to the attention of their State Chair, NACA staff, or a NACA listserv moderator, the Executive Director can remove the individual or refer the concern to the Ethics Committee for investigation. None of this has changed.

3. The updated NACA membership criteria will not make listservs “unsafe.”

There’s no dispute that the NACA community places a high value on listserv security and confidentiality. For that reason, NACA has invested, at great expense, in the current state-of-the-art listserv technology. But no matter what the criteria, no matter what listserv system, no listserv is 100% secure. Furthermore, as noted above, the Auto Fraud listserv is run by the National Consumer Law Center and NACA has no control over who can join that listserv.

With respect to the NACA-run listservs, everyone can rest assured that the same requirements that were in place before are still in force; the membership criteria did not change any of that. The Membership Committee developed requirements for the restricted NACA listservs, and the Board approved those in October 2015, as explained in this July 2016 email. And all NACA members must pledge to abide by the new NACA Member Code of Conduct, which requires that members comply with all confidentiality requirements of the listservs in which they participate. As before, the confidentiality requirement continues to apply even after one’s NACA membership has ended.

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It is understandable that not everyone has kept up with the various communications the Board sent throughout the two-year-plus process of updating NACA’s membership criteria, and that some folks would come away with the mistaken impression that the process was hidden from members. We hope this email has gone a long way towards correcting that misunderstanding. While we don’t claim that everything the Board and Membership Taskforce have done is perfect, please remember that the member leaders who participated took time away from our own busy practices and lives to volunteer our time to try to make NACA’s membership criteria clear, transparent, and fair—not because we personally have anything to gain by doing this, but because we care about NACA and want it to thrive and grow and be strong for decades into the future. We hope that, as you consider the products of this hard work, you will give us the benefit of the doubt—and do a little homework before making baseless claims that could, at worst, unnecessarily alarm your fellow NACA members (and at best, will require us to spend more time writing emails like these).

Sincerely,

Leslie Bailey and Dave Philipps, Co-Chairs of the NACA Board of Directors