Meet the Candidates: One View
On Sunday I wrote a straight report on the August 4th Meet the Candidates session. Now I’m going to give you my view on how it went.
For good news, all the candidates had a very positive attitude towards the community and service on the board. That shouldn’t be surprising, given the immediate circumstance. When they disagreed, they did so without being disagreeable. And they seemed to have a fairly good idea of how the board should function.
One sensitive area, one ripe for pandering, is that of youth programs and services. This is one of those questions that is a third rail for candidates. To say anything against such programs is to be against young people. The voting parents will punish the answerer. So, when asked what we should be doing, the candidates fell in line. They referred to past success, wondered aloud why we ever stopped our more extensive programs, and suggested we revisit them. The problem is that the numbers don’t agree. While we were spending approximately $100,000 per annum on a youth services director, assistants and activities, less than 10% of the community’s young people participated. Hard as it may be to accept, the programs were not cost effective.
There was a question about delinquency that seemed to throw them a little. The question involved delinquent members and went something like, “Given that we have a 20% delinquency rate on dues, what would you do to reduce this?” Margaret believed that if the board does a better job that would help. Bob Leon said that programs to increase involvement would help. Al looked to the newly instituted quarterly payments as an answer, and Joe said we already use a lawyer. Joe may have been closest. The problem with the question is that the actual long term delinquency rate is closer to 8% than 20. The 20% figure represents those who owe all or some of their dues at the end of the fiscal year. But most of that will be collected over the next 3 to 4 years through court action or property sale when all liens must be settled.
As I reported in the original article, one noticeable characteristic was the lack of rancor among the rival candidates, but that was far from the only takeaway. There seems to be a slow, subtle, but carefully choreographed dance away from the practices and values of recent boards and towards what I see as a dark place. The word to watch for now is ‘confidentiality.’ This was uttered more than once by the current board president and candidate Alex Leslie. The first question asked was about the principle of confidentiality and the oath (a signed paper, actually) that each member is asked to take. Al’s response was that confidentiality was “the key to board service.” It wouldn’t be the last time during the meeting that he would make such a reference. I found it to be at least a little curious, if not disturbing. While other candidates volunteered more nuanced responses, Leslie was adamant. Both Joe Miller and Margaret Fitzgerald were cautious in their answers, each indicating that this could be easily abused and should be used only when absolutely essential. Bob Leon, who had to answer first, merely stated that he believed the oath to be binding, while not going into detail on the concept.
The reason I found Mr. Leslie’s response curious was that he was on the board when we had our reorganization meeting immediately after the August ’08 Annual Meeting. I was elected president at that meeting, and my first statement involved the importance of transparency. The directors, both new and returning, all expressed the idea that, after 5 or so years of opaque boards, transparency’s time had come. We would, as much as legally possible, avoid executive sessions, and even our workshops would be open to the general membership. This new emphasis on ‘confidentiality’ seems to be a return to that opaqueness we, along with Mr. Leslie, had foresworn. In congruence with this I take note that we have gone from 2 executive sessions in 2 years to about 2 a month. Why is this new confidentiality necessary?
Then there was the question of the newspaper. “Should the board control the content of the association newspaper?” was the actual wording. As reported, Bob Leon sidestepped the question by giving the opinion that newspapers were a dead issue and online or electronic reporting was the next big thing in information dissemination. Margaret Fitzgerald was clear; she prefers a newsletter limited to event announcements and schedules. President Alex Leslie stated clearly that we hired professionals and they should decide what goes into the paper, under close board control. Only Joe Miller was unequivocal in his belief that the system previously in place with an editorial board of experienced writers should have editorial control, subject to pre-publication legal scrutiny.
What is the subtext to the meeting? Is ‘confidentiality’ a codeword for secrecy? And what ‘secrets’ must be kept? Any legal consultation between the board, GM and the association attorney must be kept confidential to protect privilege. Details of any disciplinary action directed at an employee, or any legal conflict between the association and a member or members must also be kept confidential due to the possibility of court action. And while there is no legal obligation, it is well to keep employee compensation confidential as a courtesy to employees. Virtually everything else should be visible to the membership, whether or not the information is ‘pleasant.’ Too many directors get the notion that election to the board endows one with special powers to process information that the run-of-the-mill member doesn’t possess. I don’t buy that. In conjunction with that, I agree with Director Miller. Those who control the finances should not control the flow of information. There is too much opportunity for mischief. Someone needs to be watching the watchers. We’ll do our best here.