Seattle Smack Down Offers Little Drama

by George S. Rossano

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(May 5, 2014)  The 2014 U.S. Figure Skating Governing Council was queued up with several pieces of controversial business, but most of those fell by the wayside by the time the meeting was convened Friday, May 2nd.  When I arrived the day before I only half-jokingly remarked about the rearranging of the deck chairs on the Titanic beginning at noon, but in fact that largely turned out to be the case.

The election of the president on Saturday proved the most significant decision made by the delegates.  Sam Auxier was overwhelmingly selected by the delegates by a 762 to 209 vote (78-22%).  In the election for Athlete Services Group Coordinator Doug Williams won comfortably in a 567 to 393 vote (59-41%).

In acceptance remarks near the close of the meeting Auxier commented that he took the result to be a mandate to continue on the path U.S. Figure Skating has been following the past few years.  It was not surprising to hear, but it is not obvious that it's true.

This election, from the day Pfenning announced his candidacy to the end, was a one-issue election -- the kind of relation U.S. Figure Skating would have with the ISU if Pfenning were elected.  During the meet the candidates Q&A the questions fell into basically two categories -- tell us the history of your activities in skating, and tell us what relation you would have with the ISU.  Our sense of the meeting is that this was the only issue of concern to the athletes, and it appears they were nearly unanimous in their support of Auxier, implying Auxier gained about 73% of the non-athlete delegate votes.

It was clear it was game-over for the election when athlete delegates were allowed to speak in support of Auxier in the sectional caucuses Friday morning.  Delegates in the Eastern caucus told us the remarks were inappropriately harsh in criticism of Pfenning and they where shut down by the caucus chair, with Pfenning given a chance to reply.  We were similarly told in the Mid-Western caucus a single athlete spoke in support of Auxier, and no one spoke in support of Pfenning.  In the Pacific caucus two athletes were allowed to speak in favor of Auxier.  I guess they got to the Pacific caucus last, because their remarks there were more temperate but no less pointed.  The caucus chair offered the opportunity for an athlete to speak in favor of Pfenning, but no one did.

As for the mandate, our sense of the meeting was that there remains a large group of delegates within the Association that is deeply concerned about the approach to governance of the association, and are extremely concerned about approaches to be taken in the future to try to pull figure skating in the U.S. out of the doldrums; far more than the 22% that voted for Pfenning.  For that group the question going forward will be the extent to which the new officers and board will be open to other voices and concerns in plotting the future course of U.S. Figure Skating.

A second remark from Auxier that struck me as significant was a statement that U.S. Figure Skating would do all it could to see that ISU president Cinquanta was a lame-duck.  Cinquanta, of course, is already a lame duck and we should have been working more aggressively to see that he was a lame duck in earlier congresses.  Nevertheless, this is the first time I have heard a U.S. Figure Skating president publically or privately make such a clear and pointed statement that U.S. Figure Skating would work aggressively to challenge the ISU president's power within the ISU.  Hopefully this means Auxier will marshal the many talented and dedicated representatives, office holders and others we already have working within the ISU to collectively play that hardball we wrote of in an earlier commentary.

Governing Council meetings in even years, such as this one, offer additional time and forums for delegates to discuss the most significant issues, and to get a feel for the "temperature" of the meeting before the formal business meeting takes place on Friday and Saturday.  This year, as a result of those interactions, most of the controversial items on the agenda were withdrawn or sent back to committee for further study.

At the Critical Issues meeting on Thursday, the proposal to require the parents of a minor child to join U.S. Figure Skating with the child received animated discussion.  There were several significant "what if" questions about this proposal and it quickly became clear the unintended consequences and details of this had not been adequately thought through.  Many delegates wondered what was the reason for the proposal, and the reason that ultimately became clear, as one delegate facetiously put it, was; we were going to make the parents join so we had a legal basis to bring grievances against them, so we could then throw them out as a punishment if necessary.

At the Pacific Coast caucus the next morning the parent membership proposal was passionately criticized in a lengthy discussion even though it had already been announced that it had been withdrawn, illustrating the strong sentiment against the proposal (or at least against the thoroughness with which it had been thought through).

The modifications to the moves in the fields test also generated lively discussion in critical issues, and they too were withdrawn by the next day.

The moves in the fields proposals, in our opinion, are great examples of rearranging-deck-chairs proposals.  U.S. Figure Skating continuously makes tweaks to test and program requirements without engaging the full membership in discussion of the more significant underlying issues.  So too is a work in progress to change the way tests are judged and the results of the tests documented.  The latter was not a proposal for this Governing Council but a concept that will be brought forward next year (maybe?).  The concept deals with the method of documenting the performance of a test and giving greater recognition to skaters that pass tests well above the minimum standard.

Missing from the development of both the test-content proposals and the proposals concerning the mechanism of judging tests has been engagement of the full membership in bold and visionary discussion about the purpose of testing and the appropriate relationship between testing and the competition structure.

Prior to the Governing Council I received copies of some e-mail discussion between Janet Lynn and the PSA.  In one of these she wrote "USFS, in collaboration with PSA, have taken upon themselves unprecedented control of whether figure skating knowledge will be preserved."

I see this as much as a question as it is a statement, in the context of the test proposals discussed this past weekend.  I would ask these questions (and did in one meeting):  Is it the purpose of the test structure to preserve now and for the future the full knowledge of blade-on-the-ice figure skating?  Should testing be about offering skaters the opportunity to seek the accomplishment of learning the full language of figure skating (as Lynn calls it), or should testing be about just so many requirements to support the competition structure?  Without first having the discussion and answering these questions it really doesn't much matter where the committees place the deck chairs.

In the same Thursday session where the new concepts on the judging of test were presented, the delegates got to share with the competition committee their thoughts on the use of the "optional but highly recommended" standard non-qualifying competition announcement, which at times this season has not seemed to be as optional as one might expect from the word.  The competition committee assured the concerned clubs that the standard announcement was indeed optional.  An attempt made to put this understanding into the rulebook during new business failed.

Another significant piece of business brought to the attention of the delegates outside of the formal setting of the business meeting was a status report on the development of a four year strategic plan for the next Olympic quad.  This strategic plan is something many delegates have been advocating for for more than a year.

The report presented identified top level issues and conclusions, and generic types of actions to be considered, but was short on specific details for the actions to be taken, which apparently are still to be decided in the next few months.  One result thus far, however, was a decision to expend $100,000 on a marketing firm to ...

Well, that's a good question.  No details were offered for what exactly they would do.  We all know in general what marketing firms do, but specifically what this marking money will be devoted to is TBD.  And how much marketing does one get for $100,000?  Will it make a dent?  It would have been nice to know before we voted to spend the money.  Nevertheless, we strongly support the efforts to develop the strategic plan, even if it is at least a year behind the schedule it needed to follow.

By the time of the main business meeting, there were few major issues left for voting.  Most of the decisions made have already been tweeted, faced, or otherwise electronically socialized by delegates, but here we mention just a few that we think were more significant than the others.

The term of the president was changed to two years, instead of one.  Language to synchronize the president's terms to the Olympic quad was not passed.  As passed, under normal circumstances the president can now serve for a maximum of four years, but if the office of president become vacant, the person completing that term can be later be elected to two two-year terms of their own, meaning that person could serve up to six years if the office became vacant immediately after an election of the president.

A Bylaw amendment to restore a paper ballot to confirm the election of the president or officer beyond their term limits, even in an uncontested election, did not pass.  This was the practice in the past, but was eliminated at some point few remember the details of.  My sense of the vote was that this had a majority.  It did not, however, have the two-thirds needed to pass.  It was also one of two pieces of business during the meeting where convoluted parliamentary wrangling overwhelmed the business item itself; in this case resulting in the merits of the proposed never actually being debated before the vote!  At the end of the meeting the delegates voted to allocate $30,000 for an outside review of the Bylaws, something that has not been done in several years.

The second Bylaw overwhelmed by parliamentary maneuvering concerned giving honorary membership to all U.S. World and Olympic gold medalists (past, present and future).  After spending an immense amount of time deciding if the proposal could be amended to include all medalist (it could not), the delegates punted, as they often do in such a situation, and sent it back to committee.

This is a nice gesture, and I would have voted for it, but it you really want to show the Olympic gold medalists some love they should get $250,000 and a Mercedes like the Russians did (or the $350,000 Denis Ten got for his bronze medal).

An attempt to remove the consideration of geographical representation in the selection of officials at the various national championship competitions was defeated.

A proposal to base advancement through qualifying rounds at regional qualifying competitions on a combination of placement (first two places) and total scores (remaining number advancing) was withdrawn and was not debated during the meeting.

During the meeting, outgoing president Pat St. Peter remarked that she considered her legacy after five years as president to be that during her tenure U.S. Figure Skating worked proactively to insure it did not find itself in the news consumed by scandal, as some other federations find themselves from time to time.  I would add that her legacy also includes listening to the members and successfully developing a sound multi-year business plan, putting the Association finances on firm ground, in stark contrast to the situation when she took office in the midst of the great recession.

Copyright 2014 by George S. Rossano