Political tension simmers within AVMA


SCHAUMBURG, ILL. — As friction among American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) ruling parties mounts, an apparent power struggle emerges on issues ranging from welfare and constitution reform to leadership and tsunami relief.

SCHAUMBURG, ILL. — As friction among American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) ruling parties mounts, an apparent power struggle emerges on issues ranging from welfare and constitution reform to leadership and tsunami relief.

Tension peaked in January during the AVMA Veterinary Leadership Conference where the annual event shifted from a traditionally friendly get together to a show of seemingly divided authority. Like government, this interplay between the Executive Board and the House of Delegates loosely parallels a relationship between the White House and Congress.

The jockeying has resulted in an Executive Board decision, at presstime, to vote on reinstating the Animal Welfare Committee during the group's April meeting. It also prompted board members to consider seeking a second opinion, as a courtesy, before spending large amounts of membership dollars, revealed newfound interest in the group's inner-workings and highlighted a likely contentious presidential race.

New Jersey Delegate Dr. Robert Gordon finds the heightened attention members are paying to the AVMA establishment "interesting."

"In the past, the leadership conference has been a lot of handshaking and back slapping, and now I see more people delving into political issues," he says. "I think there's more recognition now than I've ever seen of members trying to do what's best for the AVMA and best for the profession. If that results in loud conflicting opinions, I think that's OK."

Raising eyebrows

Executive Board members kicked off the Jan. 14 conference with news they pledged $500,000 for Asian tsunami relief during a special session called the prior afternoon. The money is set to match contributions by Heifer International, an aid organization that donates farm animals to needy communities.

While board members hold AVMA purse strings, some delegates argue that the House should have been consulted before spending a half-million dollars in membership dues, says Dr. Sherbyn Ostrich, Pennsylvania delegate and AVMA past president.

"It's absolutely ridiculous," he says. "They passed this without knowing if any of these dollars will be spent caring for animals. We didn't spend that much money on hurricane relief in Florida."

Executive Board member Dr. Larry Corry admits some delegates felt slighted.

"Maybe they should've been consulted," he says. "In hindsight, they're probably right."

Welfare withdrawal

In the Executive Board's defense, the conference's strict agenda for the three-day meeting didn't allow for group discussion on the topic, Corry adds. Time was exhausted debating the board's controversial November decision to dismantle the Animal Welfare Committee in favor of developing an entire division and advisory board.

Because the system is designed to function largely in-house, mainstream veterinarians, allied groups and activists are clamoring for more representation when determining AVMA welfare positions and protocols.

The discontent dampens AVMA's historic attempt to beef up its status as leaders on animal welfare in the face of increased pressure to ban a host of common medical and production practices. Talks came to a head at the conference, reportedly prompting board members to consider reinstating the Animal Welfare Committee (AWC) during its next scheduled meeting.

"People are upset that the makeup of the new advisory committee to the division does not include as many veterinarians as they thought, and the allied groups feel left out," Corry says. "I don't know what will happen, but there was a lot of heated discussion about it at the leadership meeting."

Board member Dr. Bud Hertzog favors keeping the AWC functioning.

"I'm certainly open to that," he says.

Power play

Debate wasn't lost on projected constitution and bylaws changes, either, as a final draft of the modifications was presented during the leadership conference. What started as a call to clean up redundant language within AVMA procedural guidelines has turned into an overhaul of the checks and balances system that's governed the association since the 1950s. The revision calls for, among other things, eliminating the superfluous constitution in favor of a cleaned up version of the bylaws. More importantly, it attempts to iron out which AVMA governing body has the final word on setting policy.

Dr. Charles Stoltenow, chairman of the Constitution and Bylaws Task Force, says the power should be in the House.

"There could be tension, a situation where one body would make a position statement and the other would not agree," he says. "Who has the final authority or more accountability should probably be the House, which represents the association's 72,000-plus members."

According to Corry, that's still in debate: "If the Executive Board set a policy and its in effect until the house meets and the house overturns it, what do you do? That's one issue that's never clearly been defined."

Other topics on the table include developing procedural mechanisms to handle late resolutions and amending resolutions on the House floor. But the proposal to name the House Advisory Committee (HAC) chair, an ex-officio member of the Executive Board, has stakeholders taking notice. While the HAC chair would not have voting power, the move formalizes the House's voice at Executive Board meetings.

Stoltenow relates the grumbling of critics to their resistance to change.

"Any time you have change, especially when you're changing governing documents, there's always potential for misunderstanding," he says.

Stoltenow intends to introduce the bylaws modifications to the House when it meets in July. A final vote is not expected until 2006.

From the sidelines

In the meantime, Stoltenow has developed a taste for leadership. The North Dakota extension veterinarian says he plans to run for AVMA 2006-2007 president, announcing his candidacy during the July convention.

He likely won't go uncontested. Although AVMA presidential races are rare, Executive Board member Dr. Greg Hammer promises to vie for the job.

While presidential winners usually have experience sitting on the AVMA Executive Board, Hammer's support base isn't clear as Stoltenow likely will gain House popularity.

House member Gordon, who watches the candidates posturing from the sidelines, says 2006 promises to be intriguing.

"Theoretically, the House that's voting for the president knows Charlie Stoltenow better, and you would expect the House to lean toward one of their own," he says. "But traditionally, you go through the ranks of the Executive Board, get experience, and then you are in a position to become president. Historically, with very few exceptions, that's how it's happened."

District 10, which controls a significant block of votes in California, Arizona, Nevada and Hawaii and has birthed presidential heavyweights such as Drs. Jim Nave, David Barnett and Jack Walther, could decide the election, Ostrich adds.

"There will be an uproar if District 10 splits when it comes to voting for president, and there is support for both candidates there," he says.

A clique among AVMA Executive Board members also might play a role, Gordon adds.

"Call it whatever you want, but interestingly, there appears to be some degree of influence that certain individuals have when it comes to getting elected president," he says. "They almost became anointed. It's more like a popularity contest for some candidates."

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