Attempt to reorganize AVMA governance fails — again

Changes urged to retain, attract members

July 30, 2014 (published)
By Jennifer Fiala

VIN News Service photo
Outgoing Executive Board Chair Dr. Tom Meyer and Dr. Ken Bartels, chair of the House Advisory Committee, introduced the AVMA's strategic planning initiative on Thursday to the House of Delegates.

If the American Veterinary Medical Association’s Executive Board had its way, general members would directly elect roughly half of the 160 or so volunteers on the House of Delegates, the group’s primary policymaking body.

That’s a pipedream, at least for now.

Delegates overwhelmingly rejected the bid to expand elections to general members last week during the House’s annual meeting at the AVMA convention in Denver. The Executive Board’s proposed bylaws amendment also mandated turnover in the House, limiting delegates to two consecutive four-year terms.

The term limits were meant to attract new blood to the policymaking process given that some delegates have served for decades. While the idea failed to pass, delegates OK'd a bid by the Executive Board to shorten its own terms from six to four years and prohibit two consecutive terms. Passage of the bylaws amendment also means that the Executive Board now will be known as the "Board of Directors," a term consistent with corporate nonprofit laws in Illinois, where AVMA offices are located. 

The two bylaws amendments were among several proposals to reform the AVMA's governance infrastructure and directives, including a revised mission statement and objectives that named AVMA members as the group's primary focus. The draft ultimately was referred back to the Executive Board for editing with hopes that it will again appear at the House's next meeting in January.

It's the second time that's happened.

Delegates are cautious, combing through draft policies and bylaws changes in search of "unintended consequences." Critics say the House operates as a bureaucratic behemoth that holds the AVMA back as it faces accusations that a handful of entrenched association officials have the power to make decisions that widely impact the group's 85,000-plus members.

Right now, a 15-member Executive Board operates as the AVMA’s administrative and policymaking body alongside the House, a second policymaking body comprised of a federation of 68 state, territorial and allied veterinary medical groups. For the most part, officials filling these seats are not elected by the AVMA’s general membership. They typically are appointed or elected from within the groups or associations they serve.

A growing faction within the AVMA wants that to change. Efforts to revamp the AVMA’s governance system have been ongoing since 2010, and met with resistance at nearly every step. Not only is modifying government inherently contentious, two competing goals are at play: streamlining how the AVMA operates so that it's nimble and responsive while including more members in the governing process.

For years, attempts to overhaul the AVMA’s governance structure have chugged along, doing little more than spotlighting power struggles among the association’s top brass.

That’s now changed with news that the AVMA might be losing its appeal as the nation’s largest membership organization for the profession, and the fact that some members feel disenfranchised could be partly to blame for it. Another factor might be the loss this year of AVMA-branded health insurance, which was a casualty of federal health care reforms.

AVMA officials say membership numbers have continued to climb but owe the trend to an uptick in graduates from an increased number of seats at U.S. veterinary medical programs.

The pool of potential AVMA members is expanding, but fewer are joining the group.

“Seven years ago, the AVMA represented 85 percent of all veterinarians in the United States,” Dr. Tom Meyer, Executive Board chair, announced to the House in an appeal for altering how the group operates. “Although our member numbers are increasing, our total representation has dropped to 78 percent.”

That has many concerned about the national association’s future relevance and fiscal status. Annual dues — $320 for general members — make up more than 70 percent of the AVMA’s revenue. The AVMA’s total income for 2014 was $32 million.  

Fishing for feedback

To grasp why market share is waning, AVMA officials sent surveys to 16,000 veterinarians and 5,000 students in March, seeking feedback on the association’s performance. Roughly 3,800 responses came back, each pointing out ways in which the AVMA could improve their satisfaction with the organization.  

Members expressed dissatisfaction with the AVMA’s work in two areas: accreditation and advocacy.

“The research identified two major service areas — advocacy and accreditation — that most members identified as vitally important and in need of improvement in the level of performance,” the study’s executive summary stated. “… These results indicate the AVMA should focus immediate efforts on understanding members’ explicit expectations for these two areas and the exact criteria that members use to evaluate the AVMA’s performance.”

Accreditation is a hotbed of contention within the profession
, with a faction of veterinarians pushing for the AVMA to stop evaluating overseas schools and approving U.S. programs that operate without teaching hospitals.

Advocacy, however, is much less divisive. The AVMA has responded to member needs by attempting to create a new strategic operating plan to guide the association through 2018. Chicago-based LBL Strategies, a strategic management firm, has been hired to facilitate the process.

“As the national association that advances the interests of all veterinary professionals, it is critical that the AVMA also evolve to ensure it provides the greatest amount of support and value to our members,” a website devoted to the project states.

AVMA Treasurer Dr. Barbara Schmidt explained to the House that leaders are focused on setting a new course for the AVMA “and ensuring we get there.”

“We need a forward-thinking strategic course to bring value and relevance to our members,” she told delegates. "We want to build a stronger, more focused and more relevant AVMA."

House overhaul?

That theme rang throughout debate concerning the proposed bylaws amendment that permitted AVMA members to directly elect nearly half of the House.

The AVMA House of Delegates is comprised of delegates and alternate delegates representing each state and allied organization, and the appointments or elections for those seats occur in a variety of ways. For example, leaders of one state association might appoint delegates to the AVMA while another might hold elections among the group’s board members.

The proposed bylaws change restructured the House by eliminating alternate delegates and replacing the post with delegates elected by the AVMA membership at-large. So while state and allied groups retained the ability to appoint one delegate of their choosing, AVMA members in the respective state or allied group were able to elect a veterinarian for a second, newly defined seat that once belonged to the alternate.

Dr. Rick Baum, alternate delegate from Vermont, addressed the House, making a case for change.

“Our most recent membership satisfaction survey reflects that members aren’t happy,” he said. “You cannot be membership driven if you are not membership focused. Our members are pleading for a strong association to stand behind and advocate on their behalf.

"Strengthen the veterinarian and you strengthen the profession — it’s not the other way around," he added.

Baum’s comments were met with discontent. “Don’t undermine the states or other organizations by giving a pathway (to representation) outside of those organizations,” said Dr. Jon Basler, Alaska’s delegate.

Executive Board member Dr. Mark Helfat countered that statement by urging delegates to allow for a “better governance model and democratic participation.”

“Now is the time for action,” he said. “We need to shorten the time it takes to get into this room. Our future leaders may reside in an AVMA population that has no voice. Is this democratic?

“To do nothing is unacceptable,” he continued. “Now is the time to take constructive and meaningful action. Let us not forget, we are not here to serve ourselves. We are truly here to serve the association.”

Helfat’s speech was met with applause from the House and audience members. It didn’t work, however, to temper fears expressed from within the delegation.

Dr. Stephen Shores, an alternate delegate representing Florida, voiced concern that a delegate elected by general members might derive from activist or other groups antagonistic toward the AVMA. 

“The elephant in the room is that we’re afraid of the elected delegate … because of the power of social media or major corporate enterprises,” he said. “That’s a fear, and it’s an honest fear. We could be giving, as an unintended consequence, power to groups that could promote policies that could be detrimental to the AVMA and be divisive.”

Other House delegates supported the concept of change but thought the proposed bylaws, as written, were too unwieldy to digest and support in one sitting.

“There’s something in this for everyone not to like,” Dr. Michael Ames, Arizona’s alternate delegate, said during a breakout meeting on the topic. “I don’t want to see this go away. But the reality is, can we accept (this) at one time, all at once?”

On the House floor, New Jersey's alternate delegate Dr. Elizabeth Boggier also objected to the changes based on their scope. “There’s far too much associated with this amendment for us to make a decision at this time,” she said.  

Several delegates expressed concern about how general elections might take place, prompting AVMA parliamentarian Nancy Sylvester to explain that in most cases, the bylaws changes come first. The blueprint for implementing the change comes later.

“It is very, very rare for an organization to have an amendment such as this and have an election process already in place,” she said. “One entity amends the bylaws, and other entities come up with a process and approve that. It’s very unusual to have the whole election process in place.”

Dr. Karen Bradley, delegate from Vermont, urged her colleagues to, at the very least, vote to impose term limits on delegates.

“If we look around this room, there are a lot of familiar faces,” she said. “I would love for someone to do the math on the lost years of volunteer members circulating in and out (while potential new recruits) are waiting and waiting to get the opportunity.

“That’s shameful,” she added.

Her words didn’t sway delegates such as Dr. George Richards, representing Illinois. 

“I think the time has come to vote on this amendment,” he said. “Let’s defeat it and have the Executive Board come back with a whole new governance package. … Let’s defeat it and start something fresh.”

Given that delegates rejected restructuring ideas and punted attempts to redraft the AVMA mission statement, its unclear whether the Executive Board will draft something new for the House to chew on in January.

By then the group will be called the Board of Directors.

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