A quiet call to protest


NJVMA leaves seat unfilled to question relevance of AVMA's House of Delegates.

HILLSBOROUGH, N.J. — In protest, the New Jersey Veterinary Medical Association (NJVMA) is leaving its seat open on the American Veterinary Medical Association's House of Delegates (HOD).

"Somebody's got to take the first step," explains NJVMA Executive Director Richard Alampi. "There was a time when the HOD was relevant, but I think that time has passed."

In the weeks before AVMA's House of Delegates July meeting, the NJVMA executive board was struggling with an important decision. Its delegate, Dr. Robert Gordon, was retiring, and its alternate, Dr. Mark Helfat, was elected to the AVMA Executive Board. Ultimately, the NJVMA board decided against filling either position, a move that Alampi says spurred Gordon to come out of retirement for the July meeting.

Gordon says he notified the NJVMA two years ago about his intention to retire, and there have been talks for some time about studying the governance structure of AVMA. He knew about a resolution NJVMA wanted to introduce asking for a review of AVMA's governance structure, but realized he would have to attend the meeting, despite his retirement, in order to introduce it. While AVMA's governance structure has been talked about for years without action, Gordon says the Executive Board's decision to change the Veterinarian's Oath without House of Delegates' approval was probably the straw that broke the camel's back.

"It was one more example of these blended lines of responsibility and duties and a clarification that needed to be exposed. That was really what was missing here," Gordon says. "No one, including me, wanted this to appear to the HOD that I had some vendetta or drive to cause the demise of the HOD. But let's take a hard look at the way the governance functions."

After the meeting, the NJVMA HOD seat will remain empty in protest over questions about the role and relevance of HOD, Alampi says.

"The HOD role as the policy-making body of the AVMA appears to be increasingly ineffective. Policy that the HOD recommends to the Executive Board may not be implemented by the Executive Board if the board determines that the policy is not in the best interest of the profession or the AVMA," Alampi says. "This lack of consensus often leads to repetitious debate of policy items and a lack of speed in addressing issues."

But leaving all decision-making to HOD might not work, either, Alampi says.

"A governance structure that includes a policy-making body that meets twice a year is no longer relevant in the 21st century—things just move too quickly," he explains. "It appears the Executive Board is aware of this, and does make policy decisions interim of HOD meetings. The reality of the situation is that the HOD is often an impedance, not a catalyst, to forward progress."

Cost is a concern, too. In fact, there is significant cost associated with hosting two annual HOD meetings, which includes reimbursement for delegates and alternates to attend the two meetings, as well as staff time needed to prepare and host those meetings. And those costs ultimately fall on the shoulders of AVMA members.

"The NJVMA questions if this cost can be justified and if the role of the HOD has lost its relevance," Alampi says.

By leaving its delegate and alternate seats empty, NJVMA also introduced a failed resolution calling for the formation of a task force to analyze the role of the AVMA's governmental body. But the association made its point, because the HOD did pass a separate resolution recommending that the Executive Board create a task force to examine the entire governance structure of AVMA.

It's a criticism the association is trying to address. AVMA's own 20/20 Vision Committee report, released in March, warned that some AVMA members—particularly women and younger generations—feel "disconnected" from the association. The committee chided the organization for being too "slow and bureaucratic, and not focused on the most critical issues." The committee cautioned that the association is at a pivotal time where it can either become a leader or lose influence and relevancy.

NJVMA officials are pleased that its actions helped spur examination of the association's governance structure, and Alampi says he is looking forward to seeing a report from the task force.

Without New Jersey's bold move, Helfat says, it's unlikely such a study would be undertaken at this point. Although NJVMA's resolution failed, its actions spoke loud enough, he says.

Another HOD delegate, Dr. Mark Cox, who represented the Texas Veterinary Medical Association, says a study of AVMA's governance has been needed for a long time.

"I felt one of the things that came from the HOD meeting was a great discontent in the House. There seems to be a disconnect between AVMA governance and our membership. In some ways there's even a disconnect between the higher echelons at AVMA and the House," Cox says. "There are times when I feel like the House probably shouldn't be there. If we're not going to have input and set policy, why do they spend all that money?"

That's not to say that either body doesn't have the profession's best interests at heart, Cox adds. But in AVMA's quest to reach higher goals for the profession—either through lobbying efforts or public-awareness campaigns—Cox wonders whether the association is losing its focus.

"You've just got to keep the practitioner at the forefront," he says. "You can't focus so much on those other things that you forget about our bread and butter. We've got to go back and answer to those folks. We have to represent them."

There have been several hot-button topics in recent years that exemplify this point, Cox says, like the discussion on accreditation of foreign veterinary schools. Regardless of the topic, it comes down to the fact that some concerns from the membership fall by the wayside as loftier goals usurp AVMA's time and resources.

While Cox adds that AVMA has dedicated and motivated staff and volunteers to better the profession, "we can't lose sight of who sent us."

He calls NJVMA's move to pass the resolution "a little extreme," but he is glad it took that step.

"We all ask the same question. If we're really not needed and really not going to be a part of this system, why go through the time and expense?"

AVMA President Rene Carlson says she, too, is happy the ball is rolling on talks about AVMA's governance structure. Traditional methods of running large organizations and corporations have worked for decades, but society today demands more involvement and instant communication, she says.

"I actually admire New Jersey for bringing forth a resolution to get it talked about in the House," Carlson says. "It was kind of interesting timing. It was on our plate to look at, when New Jersey brought forth Resolution 8, and it essentially moved our agenda up."

Carlson says members and committees have voiced concerns over member participation and governance structure for some time now. Technology might provide more options for AVMA to move things forward, she says, adding she hopes the task force that will be formed out of HOD's resolution will examine new, state-of-the-art methods of association management.

"I like the way the process played out," she says, adding that getting more people involved with less cost is the ultimate goal. "Everybody now, wherever they are in society, wants to have their say before someone makes a decision they have to live with."

Gordon says he, too, is happy with the outcome, even if New Jersey's resolution failed.

"I think, from the perception of the NJVMA, we accomplished our goal and actually exceeded what we anticipated."

He hopes AVMA will conduct a review focusing not on the the way things have always been done and how to make them better, but identifying a new way to run the organization that fits the needs of today's society.

"Wipe out of your minds the way it is set up now," Gordon says. "If you were setting up a new national veterinary organization now, what would you do?"

The Executive Board was set to discuss the resolution at its Aug. 23 meeting. Results of that meeting were not available by press time.

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