Task force to alter AVMA governance regroups after backlash

House delegates could be asked to vote on their own demise

January 16, 2013 (published)
By Jennifer Fiala

An 11-member group tasked with scrutinizing and streamlining how the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) governs is regrouping after receiving a rocky reception from the House of Delegates. 

Preliminary ideas about how to revamp the AVMA’s governance system received unfavorable reviews during the House of Delegates meeting Jan. 4-5 in Chicago. Delegates took issue with much of what the AVMA Task Force on Governance and Membership Participation proposed and how it was presented — everything from implied plans to rid the association of its House to overhauling the AVMA’s current distribution of power and checks and balances. 

The task force convened last spring with the goal of making recommendations to alter how the AVMA functions so that it's more transparent, inclusive and representative of its 83,000 members. The charge came in response to criticisms that a handful of association officials make decisions carrying widespread impact without seeking input from the general membership. Right now, a 15-member Executive Board operates as the AVMA's administrative and policymaking body alongside the House, a second policy-making body comprised of a federation of 68 state, territorial and allied veterinary medical groups. The House meets twice yearly compared with the Executive Board’s six annual gatherings.

To get an idea of what's important to AVMA members, the governance task force hosted a summit last year to gather information on how the national association should operate. The brainstorming process attracted praise for its broad scope and inclusiveness. What came out of that work, however, was widely panned by delegates, some who characterized the task force's Jan. 4 presentation before the House as “disrespectful” and “disappointing.”

"The House of Delegates was told that we would have three (proposed governance) options to look at," lamented Dr. Daniel LaFontaine, a delegate representing federal and state government veterinarians.

Despite what LaFontaine and his colleagues anticipated, the task force shared with delegates a single governance model, presented in the form of an opinion poll. The 46-question poll asked delegates and other meeting participants to rate what they think is important in an AVMA governance system. The questions implied that the AVMA should disband its House of Delegates in favor of a more nimble governance structure.

As the AVMA’s largest body, the House is unwieldy, arcane and expensive to manage, critics contend. The poll pointed out, for example, that it costs the AVMA roughly $57,000 to consider a resolution — the means by which the House conducts its policy-making business. 

It's unclear how the task force arrived at that figure. The AVMA’s annual budget is $30 million. Roughly $660,000 is allocated for House operations, and another $2.3 million is spent on the AVMA's various council and committee operations — all of which the task force seeks to reshape.   

Replacing the House could be a handful of advisory councils focused on topics such as “advocacy, animal welfare, economics, member participation and research," the task force suggested. In addition, the House’s responsibility to elect AVMA leaders could be passed on to the AVMA’s general membership, provided a system for electronic voting is implemented.

Such sweeping changes were not widely embraced during the House of Delegates meeting. 

Proponents for maintaining the House say the body directly represents the voice of members and that the benefits of sharing face time with colleagues are immeasurable. The group contains representatives from every state and 16 allied organizations.

"Once things start going electronic, you lose that personal contact (that delegates have with the veterinarians in their districts)," said Dr. Janis Sosnowski-Nichol, a delegate representing Delaware. "With electronic voting what are you going to get, 10 or 12 people voting per state?"

Dr. Michael Topper, an alternate delegate representing Pennsylvania, disagreed with the idea that the AVMA's governance system needs to drastically change.

“The (governance) model that was selected was force-fed to us with the idea that we are so terribly broken, that we need to be squashed,” he said. Referring to the task force's presentation, Topper later added: “You only have one chance to make a good impression … and that didn’t happen.”

Topper directed his comments to Rick Alampi, executive director of the New Jersey Veterinary Medical Association and a member of the governance task force. Alampi acknowledged missteps such as failing to provide the delegates with advanced notice of the presentation’s particulars.

“I think there were some serious mistakes made,” Alampi said of the presentation and poll. “However, our intent was to foster the beginning of the dialogue.”  

Dr. Mary Bryant, a delegate representing Pennsylvania, interjected that she appreciates the task force's efforts.

“I think a lot of things about the AVMA are broken and have never gotten fixed," she said. "Should we wipe the slate clean? It’s really cool to belong to an organization that would consider that."
The task force plans to collect comments from delegates and review them in March. In June, the task force aims to present a report suggesting concrete changes to the AVMA Executive Board. That same report would be presented in July to the House of Delegates during the AVMA's annual convention in Chicago.
That timeline is tentative and depends on the task force’s progress, cautions Ralph Johnson, chair of the task force and executive director of the Colorado Veterinary Medical Association.

“We have a significant amount of feedback to review, and this may impact the timing of our final report,” he said. “All members of the task force are dedicated to performing due diligence in this process and the quality of the outcome should not be reduced by hastily made decisions."

Whatever changes the task force ultimately recommends to the AVMA must be passed by the House to enact. In other words, if the House is to be disbanded, delegates must vote to make that happen.

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