Will Info Ever Be Available, or Will It Remain a Kennebec?

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Have elections become even more bitter, nasty, chock full o'accusations and half-truths and spin? Or have elections from the earliest days always been partisan and acrimonious, and it's just the widespread access to media that has brought the rancor readily to our desktops, making it only seem worse.

And can any of us, regardless of which side of an issue we're on, ever get a straight answer?

I'm speaking, of course, of elections related to credit union charter conversions. The latest example has taken place in central Maine, and involves KV Federal Credit Union, which is seeking to merge with Kennebec Savings Bank. In the process, the credit union charter would head to the local history museum and its $53-million worth of assets and reserves would be absorbed by Kennebec Savings Bank, which is a mutual. (Technically, the credit union must convert to a mutual savings bank charter before it can merge with Kennebec Savings.)

Members have now concluded 30 days of voting and the ballots are in, with results perhaps released this week. In the run-up to the election and then during the voting itself, opinions were expressed in the independent fashion one would expect in a state that once nearly went to war on its own with Canada over its northeastern border.

Don't Forget to Write

The "editors" who receive Letters to the Editor never know what will be in tomorrow's e-mailbag. The in box can be as full as an Amazonian rain barrel or as empty as a poor man's checking account, and which story or cause will prompt readers' ire is among the great unknowns. Not so for local editors letters since the credit union/bank merger was announced.

From the day the proposal was made more than a year ago, the people in the capital region have been reacquainted with their keyboards and "send" buttons-which might be expected when Augusta is just down the road. KVFCU members and customer/members of the bank received disclosures from their respective institutions, but it wasn't long before folks began disagreeing over just what had been "disclosed."

Road Signs & Radio Callers

Local newspapers have described political-campaign-like signs along local roadways, newspaper advertisements, radio callers and the aforementioned letters that have emerged since the plan was hatched. Last week, at the same Augusta Civic Center where the Maine league held its annual meeting earlier this year, the credit union hosted a membership meeting at which we assume it made its case. I say "assume," because the KV Federal would not allow a local reporter to attend (I admit I have a bias here, but if you're a democratically run institution that claims it's being transparent in acting in the best interests of members, what exactly is it you don't want reported?).

In politics we've seen the rapid emergence of mysteriously-funded and backed groups on all sides of all issues, the so-called 527 organizations, so it's not surprising we're seeing a microcosm within the credit union community. On one side is a group calling itself "KV Members Matter" (opposed to the merger); on the other, "KV Members Voting Yes for the Merger" (if you need to know where they stand, well, you probably shouldn't be voting. Or driving. Or anything, really.). Those who belong to KV Members Matter, and those who sympathize with its position, argue that a homegrown, locally owned piece of the community, not to mention a competitive counterweight, will disappear if the merger is approved. KV Members Voting Yes toe the bank's and credit union's line that a merger will provide members with greater access to products, services and branches (the bank is considerably larger than the credit union and the merged institution would have more than $700 million in assets).

The aforementioned letters to the editor have certainly articulated the opposing positions, with some, like dad doing junior's homework, giving the appearance they had some help and encouragement from behind the scenes.

But the letters most memorable to me, and most instructive to credit unions across the country, expressed overall frustration with whom to believe, not to mention the more-than-occasional misunderstanding of what a credit union is and how it works. If you haven't explained that whole structure thing to members, it's likely too late to do so when you're mailing out a conversion proposal (which I'm pretty sure suits many of those doing such mailings just fine).

Recent letters to the editor have included everything from praise for the management teams of both institutions, with one person claiming KV Valley and Kennebec Savings are the "only two places I would ever trust with my finances"; to another linking her own French heritage to that of credit unions, before stating, "If my generation, however, represents the future of the credit union, we only emphasize the need for this merger"; to others questioning why any member would want to give up their ownership, asking about their equity, and questioning if management and the boards of both institutions don't have something up their sleeves.

The Long Reach

The word "Kennebec" comes from the Algonguian language for "long reach." No doubt each side considers the other's position to be just that. The rumor mill within credit unions is suggesting that in the months and years ahead more such conversions are in the pipeline. If so, we'll certainly see more of the tactics on display in Maine. Yet through it all the question remains whether there will ever be a short answer to the benefits of such conversions, or whether it will remain a "Kennebec."

Frank J. Diekmann can be reached at fdiekmann@cujournal.com.

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