AVMA delegates reject bid to add transparency to governing processes

Delegates expressed fears of retribution by public on controversial issues

January 11, 2011 (published)
By Jennifer Fiala

A plan to shed light on how the American Veterinary Medical Association’s (AVMA) leadership votes on policies impacting the profession provoked fears that sharing such information might incite a backlash on individual veterinarians.

During a meeting last Saturday in Chicago, the AVMA House of Delegates defeated a resolution that called for posting how individual delegates vote on issues and elections within the Members Only section of the AVMA’s website. After hours of debate, more than 60 percent of all delegates elected to maintain the secretive nature of House balloting processes.  

The House of Delegates, or HOD, is one of two policy-making bodies in the AVMA, with representatives from every state veterinary medical associations as well as 16 allied organizations. The House, which casts votes on resolutions as well as authorizes candidates for a variety of AVMA councils and committees, convenes twice annually. (The AVMA's 16-member Executive Board also creates policy but serves administrative functions as well, meeting six times a year.)

Currently, the voting habits of individual House delegates are private. The resolution to open that process came from the Arizona Veterinary Medical Association.

The impetus for change: Arizona leaders reportedly were kept in the dark on the breakdown of a tally concerning a candidate from the state who was not elected to serve in the AVMA during last summer's HOD session in Atlanta. Additionally, the New Jersey Veterinary Medical Association was denied access to how individual delegates voted on its resolution concerning antimicrobial resistance, which failed during the same meeting.

The goal, supporters say, is to end the air of secrecy that has earned the AVMA criticism of its governance structure and political processes.

“The votes we cast should be available for the members we represent to review and to comment upon if desired. … The intent of this resolution is to encourage a more open and transparent process, not to increase its complexity,” the resolution stated.

But exposing how delegates vote could carry unintended consequences, critics noted. While debating the resolution’s merits, many delegates expressed trepidation, believing that if the way they vote on controversial issues, especially those concerning animal welfare, were known by the general public, reprisal from activists could follow. Some expressed fears of terrorism akin to what’s been experienced by some researchers who work with animals, especially primates.

Alternatively, those in favor of publicizing how delegates vote say that defeating the resolution fosters ambiguity and sends the wrong message to the AVMA’s 81,500 dues-paying members.

“I think this is a situation where we should look at ourselves through the lens of our constituents,” said Dr. C. Jeffrey Brown, delegate from Arizona in defense of the resolution. “The goal of this resolution is to make us more transparent. What kind of message is this sending if we reject this?”

Arizona’s Alternate Delegate Dr. James McDonald reasoned that the fear argument is “relatively overstated.”

“The benefits of doing this way outweigh the downside. Opening this thing up — while there is some risk, our image with the rest of our membership is going to improve,” he said.  

The image problem McDonald speaks of stems from what some believe is a disconnect between the AVMA leadership and its general membership, most recently typified by the AVMA Executive Board’s seemingly sudden changes to the Veterinarian’s Oath.

That controversial move created chatter among delegates during the meeting, many of whom expressed a desire for more notification and an ability to comment on such major decisions. Those in support of transparency surmised that the real reason for the House’s widespread apprehension toward the resolution had more to do with political vote trading — a practice reportedly rampant among delegates. With large states like California and Texas carrying more voting power than smaller ones, deals are made to get candidates elected and resolutions passed. Transparency could add to the “influence peddling,” some contend.

“I’m concerned that this type of voting, which is the same type of voting done in Washington, will promote political consequences,” argued Dr. Benjamin Franklin, delegate representing the American Association of Equine Practitioners.

To that, Dr. Myron Downs, alternate delegate from Georgia, asked: “Are you a politician or are you a statesman? The issue of transparency … it’s kind of counterintuitive. When you have transparency you might be affected by outside sources.”

Connecticut Delegate Dr. Stewart “Chip” Beckett fired back his belief that transparency would open the door to better policy making: “If you don’t know why a resolution passed or failed, you can’t modify it; there’s no way to bridge the gap. I agree that this is a very politicized body, and it’s not going to be any worse if there’s transparency.

“We don’t allow people to review our work and see what we’re doing. Let’s not act like we’re hiding behind a curtain, and it’s protection.”

Dr. Gary Thompson, Ohio delegate, echoed those sentiments.

“Transparency can blow up in your face, I agree. I’m wrong about a lot of stuff, but I think the view is always better from the high ground,” he said.

Despite the bevy of arguments favoring the resolution, they did not provide enough traction for its passage. Spouting a reference from the Bible, Georgia Delegate Dr. Timothy Montgomery stood before his colleagues and noted that veterinarians are honest and reputable, negating a need for opening the House voting processes.

Furthermore, he stated, when it comes to controversial animal welfare topics, veterinarians don’t have the means to go back to their hometowns and face a backlash.

“We don’t have the income that a U.S. representative or senator has,” Montgomery argued. “We have to go home to be selected as the poster child representing a particular view on an issue and have that become a media circus … subject to media scrutiny and the Internet.”

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