New blood challenges seasoned official for AVMA Executive Board seat

Veterinarians urged to get ballots to AVMA headquarters by April 1

March 16, 2011 (published)
By Jennifer Fiala

Two candidates are competing for a seat with the American Veterinary Medical Association’s (AVMA) Executive Board, each with a perspective honed while working at distinct ends of the professional spectrum in terms of small animal medicine.

Dr. Mark Helfat, a private practice owner and representative for New Jersey in the AVMA House of Delegates, is being challenged by Dr. Charles Dunn, a self-proclaimed “newbie” to association governance who’s employed as Banfield’s Regional Medical Director for the Northeast United States. While Helfat’s state association is sponsoring his candidacy, Dunn is coming into the race last minute, supported via petition with 50 AVMA-member signatures.

Based on AVMA membership numbers, approximately 9,600 veterinarians in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Maryland, Delaware, Virginia and the District of Columbia have the power to elect a District II representative, though AVMA officials did not confirm the estimate. More than 3,400 veterinarians in the region are members of the Veterinary Information Network (VIN), an online community for the profession and parent of the VIN News Service.

Empowered by the AVMA Bylaws, the 16-member Executive Board carries the weight of the national association. Its members wield more power to directly drive action for the group’s 81,500 members than any other body within the AVMA. The board, charged with administrative duties and making policy, is comprised of 11 district representatives and a handful of officers, including the AVMA president.

Traditionally, Executive Board members spend years volunteering in various AVMA committees, councils and on the House of Delegates before being elected to the post. After nine years in the House, Helfat wants to open his seat to newcomers yet expresses a desire to remain active in AVMA leadership. “We want new blood in the House of Delegates. It keeps it healthy,” he reasons.

The open seat on the Executive Board "is the perfect opportunity to go to the next level,” he adds. “I want to be the veterinarian’s voice at the board level, and it works the other way, too. I’m the communicator (from the AVMA) bringing information back to members.”

Helfat believes the most pressing issues facing veterinary medicine have to do with the state of veterinary education and the economics of running a practice. Hit hard financially at his own hospital in Mt. Laurel, N.J., he says wryly of his kennel area, “I’m thinking of turning it into a bowling alley.”

Dunn, by contrast, has never attended an AVMA meeting let alone a session of the Executive Board, which meets six times annually. He lives in suburban Philadelphia but is on the road 50 percent of his working life for Banfield, overseeing how veterinarians practice medicine for the corporation in hospitals from Virginia to Maine. With respect to his inexperience in association politics, Dunn says: “I think it’s time for a fresh set of eyes. I’m concerned about practitioners losing drug sales to Internet pharmacies, increasing communication with clients and making sure our new graduates are coming out of school with the skills and tools necessary for surviving in this profession.”

Banfield officials have confirmed that its employees receive bonuses for getting involved in professional associations; the amount is weighted based on a person’s position. When questioned about it, Dunn objected to the notion that a bonus might be driving his candidacy. In fact, he stated that he was unaware of this company policy until recently. If he wins, Dunn plans to pay the applicable taxes and donate the remainder to the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine and the American Veterinary Medical Foundation.

“I just want to get involved and give back," he says. "I want to help our profession move forward and be progressive.”

Contested races are scarce within the AVMA, where the top brass can seem anointed rather than selected by the masses. Challenges for seats on the Executive Board are more frequent than that of AVMA presidential races. But as Helfat and Dunn compete for District II, the representative for District IV already has been decided.

Without an opponent, Dr. Chester L. Rawson, of Markesan, Wis., has been named the incumbent for District VI, representing Indiana, Illinois and Wisconsin. He replaces Executive Board member Dr. John Scamahorn, who will vacate the post when his six-year term expires this summer.

Helfat and Dunn are gunning for the seat now occupied by Dr. John Brooks, of Maryland, yet when it comes to voter turnout, large returns aren’t expected. Between 1,500 and 1,800 veterinarians in District II traditionally weigh in on Executive Board elections, according to Helfat. Ballots went out March 1 and must be returned to AVMA headquarters in Schaumburg, Ill., by April 1.

The AVMA did not respond to repeated attempts by the VIN News Service to obtain actual numbers related to balloting and voter processes, but to varying degrees, it appears that none of the Executive Board seats attract much attention when it comes to elections.

Whether that reflects apathy among AVMA members or the possibility that the ballots are overlooked or mistaken for junk mail is unclear. Ballots include descriptions of each candidate and a small ballot sheet that fits inside a pre-addressed, business-sized envelope. Voters must provide postage, which some believe could curb a veterinarian’s desire to complete the ballot and return it.
Dr. Linda Shell, a boarded neurologist and VIN consultant living in Pilot, Va., reports only noticing her AVMA ballot when prompted by the VIN News Service to peruse her mail for it.

When asked to recall receiving AVMA ballots in the mail, Dr. Jon Klingborg, a California practitioner in a district where an Executive Board seat opened in 2009, replied: “Ballots? What ballots? I don’t remember voting on any AVMA issue directly.”

It seems Klingborg is not alone. The candidates themselves were uncertain about the appearance of the ballots prior to the mailing.

With plenty of practitioners unclear about how the AVMA works, Helfat supports virtually all means for getting more veterinarians involved. However, he understands that many aren’t able to meet the time commitments required of volunteers. He remembers fondly his start in organized veterinary medicine, having been dragged by his first boss to a local meeting as a young veterinarian.

“I certainly didn’t grasp what really went on at the AVMA until I started contributing my time,” Helfat says. “Want to know where your dues go? … It’s something you have to witness first hand. I would encourage that for any skeptic. The upside is the camaraderie and the positive feeling you get from doing something for the good of the profession."

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