Deadline for ballot return in Sierra Club election arrives

Accusations have been made that a faction of anti-immigration and animal rights activists are trying to take over the board. One member accused of being in the faction said the allegations are not true.

By Tracy Domingo/Special to The Malibu Times

Thursday marks the deadline for the Sierra Club Board of Directors election ballots to be returned. Many are calling this election critical for the future of the 112-year-old environmental organization, in which members will choose three candidates to serve on the board. There has been a storm of controversy in recent months about the election, after allegations arose that there was a faction of candidates made up of anti-immigration and animal rights activists who are attempting to gain a majority on the 15-seat board.

One of the members of the alleged faction is current Board member Paul Watson. A co-founder of Greenpeace and a founder and president of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, Watson is known for his zeal with protecting marine wildlife. He was elected to the board in 2003, and is not up for re-election until 2006. But one of the candidates he is supporting in this year’s election is former Malibu City Council candidate Robert Roy van de Hoek. Van de Hoek, who did not return phone calls for this story, is a fervent environmentalist and currently serves on the Sierra Club California Executive Committee.

“He [van de Hoek] is not afraid to stand up and champion issues, no matter how controversial they are,” Watson said.

Some have called van de Hoek a fanatic because of his past behavior. It was revealed during his City Council run in 2002 that he was convicted on four counts of vandalism for destroying government property and natural resources in the Carrizo Plain in 1996. The charges, all of which van de Hoek claimed were false, were later removed from his record.

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“Being arrested is not the mark of being a fanatic,” Watson said. “He [van de Hoek] is most certainly a nonviolent activist.”

Other people included in the alleged faction are former Colorado Gov. Richard Lamm, former Director of the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation Frank Morris, Cornell Professor David Pimentel and Kim McCoy. Watson said the accusation that they are against immigration is unfounded.

“I am not even a U.S. citizen,” Watson said. “I’m a permanent resident. Robert Roy Van de Hoek is from Holland, and Kim McCoy’s fiancé is from Canada. Our position is simply that we want to achieve immigrant stabilization by reducing the number of immigrants in the country.”

Environmental public interest litigator and Malibu resident Frank Angel said he agrees overpopulation is a problem for the environment, but he said the Sierra Club should not get lost in the immigration debate.

“I’m not saying the new candidates don’t have a point,” Angel said. “But immigration control does not solve the underlying issue of birth control. It is a healthy debate, but it can’t be resolved by one country digging a moat around itself.”

The anti-immigration dispute has created uproar within the club, inciting allegations of racism and bigotry. Earlier this year, Sierra Club President Larry Fahn received a five-page letter from the Southern Poverty Law Center stating that anti-immigration activists and white supremacy Web sites were encouraging their followers to join the Sierra Club to vote in this year’s election for the new candidates.

Watson said the allegations of racism are outrageous. He said they were coming from Carl Pope, the executive director of the Sierra Club, and the club’s “old guard.”

“They think they have their position threatened so they are pulling out all the stops to get their candidates to win,” Watson said.

Fahn said Pope was unable to comment on the election in the event he may be accused of improper electioneering. But Fahn said Watson’s accusation was false.

“I can assure you that neither Carl Pope nor any Sierra Club staff person or member of our board has accused Paul Watson of being a racist,” Fahn said. “What Carl and many of us have said is that the very divisive issue of immigration tends to bring people out of the woodwork who are racists. And many have surfaced asking their supporters to join the Sierra Club and to vote for Sierra Club Board candidates.”

All 750,000 members of the Sierra Club are permitted to vote in the election. But according the Sierra Club Web site, only 8.7 percent of members voted in last year’s election.

Art Antolick, a member of the Sierra Club West Los Angeles Group, has already voted, and encouraged other members to vote as well.

“I am an active environmentalist and active Sierra Club member,” Antolick said. “The Sierra Club was founded by John Muir to protect the environment, and I think these people are trying to use the membership of this organization to further their own goals.”

However, Watson said that is what democratic elections are all about.

“This is not a hostile takeover,” Watson said. “This is a democratic organization and we are there because we are elected. To get a majority to get reform and bring about changes is the goal of every board of every organization. People are making it sound like this is bizarre … everybody does it!”

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