U.S. Figure Skating Governance on the Chopping Block

by George Rossano

( 29 April 2012)  We normally don't write about U.S. Figure Skating governance issues.  Most of the time they are only of interest to people on the inside, and when they aren't, there is usually only downside, since one is sure to piss off someone who disagrees with you and will make sure you eventually pay one way or another for expressing your opinion.  But there is a piece of business on the upcoming Governing Council agenda which is so significant, we are going to break our self imposed rule and let her rip.  We are talking about a proposed change to the bylaws going by the name of "Exhibit D" in the 2012 Governing Council meeting book.

Speaking now as a delegate to the Governing Council who has participated in a fair number of those meetings over the past 20+ years, Exhibit D has to be one of the most disastrous concepts to ever be presented to a Governing Council.

Two years ago the delegates asked (demanded really) that the Association come up with a multi-year plan to balance the budget which has run in the red now for several years, without drawing down the value of the Foundation excessively.  Last year Association management came up with a long term plan that draws on about 3% of the 5% annual growth in the value of the Foundation to balance the budget.  Mission accomplished.

This year, the Board of Directors has brought forward in Exhibit D a plan to drastically restructure the governance of the Association in order to save on the cost of the annual meeting.  This plan, however, does not address the root causes for the waste in the cost of the annual meeting, and instead cripples the governance process that has served the association well over its history.

I have forgotten more examples than I can remember where the Governing Council has saved the Association management from itself by turning down or correcting some well intended piece of business that was not thought through as well as it should have been.

I remember a time many years ago when my friend Morry Stillwell was chairman of the membership committee (before he became President) and brought an extensive revision of the membership rules to a governing council.  He got about two sentences out of his mouth in his presentation before he was shut down and the revision was sent packing by the Governing Council for rework and reconsideration the following year, and the Association was the better for it.  Then there was a proposed bylaw amendment from the Board that would have started open warfare with the ISI which the Governing Council wisely killed.  Most recently, there was a major revision of the Moves in the Field Test rules.  The first year this was presented, the Governing Council just hated it and sent it back for rework.  By forcing the Test Committee to take into consideration a wider range of inputs, a superior plan was brought to the Governing Council the next year; when it passed.  Again and again the Association has been the better off for the Governing Council providing annual oversight to the working of the Association's Board and committees.

One problem with the way the Association develops rules and regulations is that the same small group of people are responsible for these, largely cut off from the grass roots rank and file membership who have to make the rules work at the club level.  This has been exacerbated by the reduction in the sizes of the Board and the committees made in recent years that has reduced the number of people involved in the process further.  Often business is brought to the Governing Council whose details the grass roots have no knowledge of until the meeting book shows up in April.  Exhibit D is one such piece of business.  Delegates at past meetings did not asked that the governance of the Association be changed.  We asked that the budget be balanced and that the Association use its funds wisely.  We did not ask for the baby to be thrown out with the bath water!

In addition to the Governing Council currently being the only time the total membership can provide oversight to the Board and committees, it is the only time members from around the entire country can get together to discuss issues and share concerns and ideas.  This will be lost if every other year only an on-line vote for officers will take place, with no opportunity for on-line participants to discuss and interact with each other and the Association management.  Is the plan to have a 500 participant telecon?  Hardly.

And how many people will show up for a live meeting that includes nothing of substance, but only chit chat and socializing?   Informational/educational meetings are currently held on the Thursday before the business meeting and have much lower attendance than the number of delegates that attend the business meeting on Friday and Saturday.  Take away the business meeting in odd numbered years and my crystal ball says few will show up. I certainly would not support my club wasting money ($2,000 - 3,000) on sending delegates to such a meeting.

Further, does anyone believe for a moment that the Board and the committees will be able to control themselves and not change rules and regulations between meetings in even numbered years?  I think not.  What we will find is that the Board will pass temporary rules and regulations and publish technical notices that will stand for up to two years before the membership can weigh in on them.

Then there is the budget.  How will the annual budget and financial oversight be handled if the budget is set every two years?  The plan is to go to a two-year budget process, but we currently do not do a very good job of sticking to a one year budget.  Will it really work for two?  Imagine if under the proposed change a two-year budget had been set in May 2008, in the midst of good times, only to be followed by two years of the worst economic downturn since the great depression before the budget was revisited.  The result would have been a financial mess.

There is also an ill-defined plan to have electronic votes of the delegates from time to time between even-numbered-year meetings.  But again, this will not be a process where delegates can debate and discuss and then make informed decisions.  These will be take-it-or-leave-it internet votes on business that cannot be amended or discussed, and there appears to be no provision for delegates to introduce new business, which will be lost every other year.  One strength of the Governing Council is that members can appeal directly to the Governing Council to address problems without having to get approval of the Board or the committees first.

The proposed voting concept is poorly thought out and is not a way to get rules that serve the best interests of the members, but looks more like a process designed to get delegates to rubber-stamp top-down decisions.

Eliminating the business meeting in odd numbered years, I believe, will further isolate the Association management from the membership, to the detriment of the Association, our clubs and our skaters, and is a recipe for fiscal chaos.  There is already too little financial oversight and accountability for how our money is used.  Eroding that further would be a mistake.

Is the Governing Council perfect?

Hardly.  But it works.  It is about 2% of the Association's annual budget, which really isn't that bad; but any long time participant in these meetings can tell you the cost of these meetings has become wasteful, and could be improved.

So the real question is how can one reduce the cost of the annual meeting without destroying a method of governance that has served the Association well, and is essential to the health of the Association?

The proponents of Exhibit D claim cost savings of about $440,000 over a four year cycle, by eliminating meetings in odd numbered years, but making no changes to even numbered years.  It is claimed here instead that the same savings can be realized without making significant changes to the annual meeting, by reducing cost each year by at least $100,000 per year.  The following suggestions are offered for discussion for where these savings can be found.

1.  There is no reason for the meeting to be located in different cities every year.  The annual meeting could be held in Colorado Springs or Denver every other year, which would save the substantial travel cost for Association staff and equipment in those years.  It would further allow the negotiation of more favorable long term contracts for convention facilities and equipment by returning to the same location on a regular basis.  Denver is an airline hub city with less expensive travel costs from cities throughout the U.S than more isolated cites.  Most large businesses and organizations hold their annual meetings at their home cities each year, and do not go traipsing around the country at unnecessary expense.

2.  Myrtle Beach I am sure will be a nice place to visit, but it is too darn expensive and too inconvenient to get to.  When not meeting in Colorado, the annual meeting should only be held in cities with direct airline connections to cities in all regions of the U.S. at reasonable cost.  Cities should also be chosen primarily based on travel and hotel costs.  I myself, would be perfectly happy to go to Colorado every year, but I recognize others may not.

3.  Too many people are sent to the annual meeting on the Association's nickel.  Only essential people should be at the Association's expense.  Others can pay for themselves, like the delegates, or give their proxy to someone else.  There is no reason for the Association to pay the cost for someone who speaks for only five minutes all weekend, if they speak at all at the meeting.

4.  Charge a fee for the second or subsequent delegates from clubs.  A plan was put forward a few years ago to charge all delegates and was turned down -- and rightly so.  Clubs should not have to pay to have their voices heard at all, but their voices can be heard from one delegate.

5.  Restructure the delegate formula to reduce the total number of potential delegates.  One does not need a delegate for every 50 members (or whatever it exactly is).  Reducing the size of the meeting will allow holding the meeting in smaller convention spaces at reduced cost.

6.  Dial back the technology imported into the meeting.  It has gone way over the top in recent years.  The meetings ran just fine in past years without nearly so much technical support.

7.  And finally the real budget killer -- the rulebook.  The Association spends over $120,000 a year to edit and publish an electronic document that is distributed as a file on the website, and can be printed out by anyone who wants a hard copy.  Speaking as someone who has published several hard copy books, electronic documents, and has worked with publishers of several magazines for over 20 years, this is just nuts!  I would gladly take $60,000 a year to publish the rulebook for the Association, and am sure I would make a nice profit in the process.  The cost would be even less if the distribution was entirely electronic and the technically challenged who could not print a hard copy on their own paid for a hard copy at it's true cost, or had one printed by a friend.  Indeed, most of a desired $100,000 per year savings can come alone from fixing the current absurd cost of publishing the rulebook.

Although I speak here for myself, many members in my section have shared with me their recognition of the negative consequences from passing Exhibit D.  The Governing Council needs to step up to the plate once again this year and kill Exhibit D and insist instead that the Association management cut the waste from current meeting costs without destroying our governance process.  There are more than enough ways to accomplish this.

Revised 30 April 2012, 6:00 PM

Return to title page

Copyright 2012 by George S. Rossano