We disbanded but did not fail

Efforts to change AVMA's governance continue despite roadblocks

October 9, 2014 (published)
By Karen Bradley

Photo by Scott Nolen
Dr. Karen Bradley

Numerous volunteers within the AVMA have evaluated member participation and options for governance reform for the last three years. There’s been creative think-tanking, an incredible report and various attempts to alter how the AVMA functions so that can be transparent, inclusive and more representative of its 85,000-plus members.

The efforts of the Government Engagement Team, or GET, ended in July when we felt we no longer could be impactful. That’s not to say we failed. If nothing else, we’ve kept the conversation going.

The current movement to change how the association governs began in 2010, when the AVMA Executive Board formed the Task Force on Governance and Membership Participation, an 11-member group charged to craft a governance structure that could provide better member engagement and carry AVMA into the future as a successful, vibrant professional association.

This action was in direct response to a request from the House of Delegates, however many delegates did not anticipate that the task force's final plans would turn the policymaking House into a forum or assembly.

The suggestion was not well received by delegates.

In June 2013, the seven-member GET was formed to determine what parts of the task force's plan reasonably could be implemented. Delegates already had voted to retain the House no matter the governance changes proposed. The GET was operating to find the compromises: What changes in the AVMA Executive Board, council and committee structures and House of Delegates could be implemented that might enhance the ability to have better membership engagement and participation?

We worked hard to look at the AVMA from a multigenerational, member-centric perspective. Between the task force and the GET, more than 2,500 hours were spent working toward that end.

For one year, the GET surveyed House delegates and members of AVMA committees and councils about their thoughts of the proposed changes. The team collected the feedback and conducted focused work with the House of Delegates and House Advisory Committee to further try and find compromise options for change.

Ultimately, the team drafted a report with recommendations for reforms to the House and Executive Board. Our suggestions included:

  • establishing two equal, voting delegates (rather than a voting delegate and non-voting alternate delegate);
  • creating a system for one delegate to be directly elected by AVMA members and the other delegate to continue to be selected by members of state veterinary medical associations;
  • establishing term limits such that a delegate could serve two consecutive four-year terms before cycling out of the House for at least one term. Right now, there are no mandated term limits.

Discussion on the House floor in June regarding governance changes repeatedly brought back feelings of displeasure tied to a presentation conducted by the task force in January 2013. Rather than discussing current issues on the floor, some delegates ignored what the GET was presenting and continued to complain that change was being forced upon them — change they still did not believe was needed.

These arguments were bolstered with claims by some delegates that younger members — those under age 50 — have no desire to be leaders. Some delegates argued to maintain the status quo, insisting that no AVMA member had ever directly asked him or her for change.

Until underrepresented members of our profession speak up to the leadership there will be continued denial about the importance of embracing governance change. Communicating on a forum such as Veterinary Information Network builds community, but it does not create the accountability of leadership that contacting your delegate creates.

The GET’s resignation was necessary for the aforementioned reasons and several others. The simple existence of the GET was enabling the House to escape accountability. Delegates could focus on complaining about our job performance without having to look at their own.

Consider the House deliberation of the bylaw amendment that would allow alternate delegates to have a vote equal to their organization’s delegate and would further require that in the future half of the delegates would be elected by the AVMA membership in that geographical or allied group structure.

Prior to the House business meeting, delegates were given background materials including a plan for a four-year transition period to this proposed structure. It explained that no alternate delegate would lose his or her position for one year and many alternate delegates would remain in their positions for several years. Although our team provided this information, its content did not get included in the final bylaws amendment proposed by the Executive Board. This oversight could have been rectified yet the proviso introduced in the House stated that the alternate delegates would maintain their positions only until the close of that business meeting and then elections would have to take place for every position. Understandably, this created fear within the House, and even some supporters of the bylaws changes no longer felt they could vote for the amendment.

This is an unfortunate but not uncommon example of how misinformation in the House can result in uninformed decision making. Removing the GET from the process places the responsibility for change directly on the House and Executive Board.

Were our efforts to no avail? I sought the opinions of several GET and task force members and their answers might be surprising. The consensus was that their time was not wasted, and we did have an impact. The mere fact that conversation around governance issues relating to member engagement is now happening is real progress. There is so much progress still to be made, but collectively, we are optimistic real change will happen — eventually.

Sure, it would have been more satisfying if the changes for which we had advocated were realized. But the Executive Board — newly renamed the Board of Directors — and House Advisory Committee members are working on revising our plans to alter governance, so stay tuned.

I ask you, the reader, do you know your AVMA delegates? Did you participate in an election to get them to the decision-making table? How does someone become a delegate representing your state veterinary medical association or your specialty group, such as the American Animal Hospital Association or the American Association of Equine Practitioners? How many times have you as a constituent been asked or surveyed about your thoughts on issues going before the House?

What you think as an individual member does matter, and your opinion does need to get to the leaders at those decision-making tables. Perhaps YOU need to get to the leadership table. Get involved. Engage with AVMA leaders and shed your bystander status!

About the author: Dr. Karen Bradley graduated from the University of Georgia College of Veterinary Medicine in 1996. She practices small-animal veterinary medicine and surgery at the Onion River Animal Hospital in Montpelier, Vermont. She became involved in organized veterinary medicine in Vermont and now serves as a delegate to the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA). She is the former chair of the Governance Engagement Team (GET), a group charged with creating proposals to change how the AVMA governs. In 2013, she helped found the Women's Veterinary Leadership Development Initiative to support women in seeking and achieving leadership, policy and decision-making positions.

Drs. Chip Beckett, Apryl Steele, Lori Teller and Mr. Ralph Johnson contributed to this article.

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