Assessing the Bylaw Omnibus Package – How I’d Vote and What You Need to Know

In the upcoming February 16 Board of Directors meeting, the Board will consider a number of sweeping changes to the bylaws. As a member, you need to be aware of what’s coming and why these changes are important.

One of the promises I made to you as a prospective Board member was to transparently share the ways I intended to vote. While the elections of course have not occurred yet, I wanted to take this post as an opportunity to share with you how I would vote if I was sitting on the Board.

What I want from you is to challenge me here. If you disagree with how I’d vote or my rationale, I want to hear from you.

This blog post does not cover every single proposal, but simply the ones I feel membership ought to be aware of. I’ve grouped this into three categories: Major, Moderate, and Minor (and additional notes on the Youth Working Group at the bottom).

If you want to read the full omnibus proposal, you may find it at the following link.

Major Changes to the Bylaws:

On the Establishment of a Standing Disciplinary Committee, and the Effort to Dilute the Power of the Board in Disciplinary Decisions

What You Need to Know: Perhaps the biggest proposed change to the current bylaws is a series of amendments to completely overhaul the FenceSafe disciplinary process as we know it. This proposal would create a new committee known as the “Grievance and Discipline Committee,” which would vest disciplinary powers into this Committee. The Committee would be responsible for adjudicating FenceSafe or Referees’ Commission disciplinary decisions. Only upon an accused party’s appeal would the Board of Directors step in. Decisions made by the Grievance and Disciplinary Committee would require a 2/3 vote from the BoD to overturn.

My Opinion, and How I’d Vote: For me, voting a “yes” on this is easy, with a few caveats. In my Board of Directors platform, I noted the need to make the FenceSafe disciplinary process fully independent as one of my top priorities. While I believe that this proposal falls short of that mark, it is a step in the right direction to de-politicize the disciplinary process and allow for the Board to focus on more governance-oriented priorities.

Perhaps my chief concern with the proposal as its written is in the “Composition” section (pages 6-7 of the omnibus). Nowhere in the required committee composition is there anything requiring members from outside of the Fencing community. It simply states that the Committee is to comprise of two licensed or retired attorneys (good), two athletes chosen by the athletes council (good, and required by law), and four who shall be chosen by the Board of Directors (vague). In my opinion, for this to be a truly independent process, the four chosen by the Board of Directors must come from outside the Fencing community.

Let’s face it—we’re a small, community-oriented sport. When someone is accused of wrongdoing, it can often be difficult to find a disciplinary body that doesn’t have a relationship with the accuser or the accused. Turning to members from outside the community to fill these roles only stands to make the process fairer.

As for the notion that the Board only steps in to overturn decisions with a 2/3 vote—this is a notion I also support…tentatively. A 2/3 vote sets a high bar for the Board to overturn the Committee’s decisions, but I believe the process for Board intervention must be clearly defined. Appellate Courts, for instance typically will only overturn decisions from lower courts only for “errors of law.” A similar standard should be applied to the Board of Directors so that members will only vote to overturn egregious misapplications of justice from the proposed Committee. Otherwise—let their decisions stand.

On the Proposed Changes to the Hall of Fame Elections Process:

What You Need to Know: Full disclosure—I am a member of the Hall of Fame Committee. I am also a nominee for the Board elections. So what I discuss here will simply be from my own perspective, and discussion of the Committee’s proceedings will remain confidential out of respect to my colleagues. The Hall of Fame Committee has put forth a proposal that would completely overhaul the Hall of Fame election process and procedures. What this would do is create an objective scoring matrix that evaluates Hall nominees based on a number of accomplishments and achievements (e.g. Olympic appearances, world championship medals, etc.). Membership would then vote (as per the current process), and based on how the membership votes + how the Hall of Fame Committee scores a candidate, the candidate would be elected. In other words, membership would no longer have exclusive say into how the candidates are elected for the Hall.

The Committee’s proposal also separates the athlete category into three buckets (from which two athletes would be selected from each): Legacy Athletes, Veteran Athletes, Para Athletes.

My Opinion, and How I’d Vote: At the Committee level, I voted “no” on this proposal and as a Board member, I would vote “no” as well. How my colleagues voted will of course remain confidential.

I believe the intent behind this proposal was a good one—establish more objectivity in how we elect our Hall nominees and make it less of a “popularity contest,” so to speak. The criteria established for scoring candidates were done in a collegial, collaborative manner, and are an excellent way to quantify a candidate’s achievements.

So why did I vote no, and why would I vote no as a member of the Board? For two reasons:

  1. I firmly believe that the Hall of Fame Committee’s scope should be exclusively focused on nomination, but not elections. After the Burchard kerfuffle last year (both with the removal of the member-elected president, and Burchard’s subsequent ouster as Chair), the US Olympic and Paralympic Committee (USOPC) wrote in their report on USA Fencing a few months ago that membership perceived the organization to be growing increasingly undemocratic. I fear that diluting member’s voting in Hall of Fame elections would only stand to exacerbate that perception.
  2. I believe that the scoring criteria proposed by the Committee should serve as a compass, not a blueprint. There are a number of reasons why an objective scorecard can’t be objective. Let me explain:
    1. The scoring doesn’t necessarily factor in biases that exist in our sport, both historical and in the present. For example, opportunities for women did not really exist in NCAA and/or the national team until far too recently. When WFencing published their report card in 2020 on gender equity in coaching, USA Fencing received an F. At that time, there were no women on the national coaching staff (we have one now. Just one). Someone like Charlotte Remenyik who we nominated last year (and was elected) would have scored pretty low on our criteria, but she was absolutely deserving!
    1. Continuing on the subject of historical biases, women’s Sabre was not even an Olympic event until 2004. So if one was to score a pre-2004 fencer against one in the present, the present fencer would outscore the pre-2004 ones almost every time.
    1. If we scored Kamara James (elected last year) based on the scoring criteria alone, Kamara probably wouldn’t have gotten on the ballot. I nominated Kamara mostly based on “what could have been.” Kamara was a 1x Olympian. She died at 29 after tragically taking her own life. Just like when the NFL inducted Derrick Thomas posthumously after he died following complications from a car accident at 33, it seems to be a best practice for Hall of Fame bodies such as ours to be able to subjectively factor in trajectory when making these tough decisions. 

The spreadsheet and scoring put forth by one of my colleagues is absolutely game-changing and will allow us to more objectively evaluate nominees. But a complementary, subjective evaluation is a must in these proceedings in order to factor in historical context. I simply cannot support diluting membership’s role in any kind of elections moving forward.

Moderate Changes to the Bylaws

On the Proposed Conflicts of Interest Policy

What You Need to Know: The omnibus bylaw proposal lays out a very granular, explicitly stated conflict of interest policy, stating who it applies to, areas where conflicts of interest might arise, and consequences for violating the conflicts policy.

My Opinion, and How I’d Vote: Easy “yes” vote for me. Having an explicit conflict of interest policy is good for holding Board members accountable and provides a transparent standard for which our members may hold us to.

I believe this can be improved in two ways, one simple, one not so simple: Nowhere in the proposed policy is there anything requiring our appointed representatives to FIE Congress to be beholden to this policy. Given the often clandestine, untransparent nature of the FIE Congress, it’s important that appointees to FIE Congress are expected to follow the Conflicts policy.

Another way this can improve (not necessarily in the proposed policy, but in amendments to the bylaws themselves) is to institute a no nepotism policy for members of the Board. In every 501(c)3 I’ve worked with to build governance maturity models, this idea is a must as a part of good governance. If I’m elected, I will be proposing such a policy in the future.

On the Clarification to Term Limits for Treasurers and Vice-Chairs:

What you Need to Know: Clarifies that the Treasurer and Vice-Chairs shall serve terms of two years, and are term limited to 8 consecutive years.

My Opinion, and How I’d Vote: I would vote “yes” here. Term limits are an important part of good governance. We already got term limits as part of last summer’s governance overhaul (as well as expanded At-Large Director terms from 2 to 4 years). Including this for Treasurer and Vice Chair is an easy “yes” vote.

In their report on USA Fencing, the USOPC recommended that USA Fencing have a greater focus on succession planning for Independent Directors. I believe such a focus must also be expanded to the role of Treasurer as well. Prior to his ascension to Chair, Mr. Arias served admirably in the role of Treasurer. However, Mr. Arias was often the only candidate on the ballot! For such a critical position responsible for the purse strings of the org., I will prioritize having qualified and able candidates at the ready for when the Treasurer’s term ends or they decide to step down.

On the Removal of Treasurer or Vice-Chairs

What you Need to Know: This proposal allows for the treasurer to be removed only after receiving notice and an “opportunity to be heard” by the Board of Directors. Vice chairs may be removed by a “duly appointed resolution” by the Board of Directors.

My Opinion, and How I’d Vote: I’d vote yes. But I find myself scratching my head at this idea that an opportunity to be heard applies to the Treasurer. Should not such a courtesy also be extended to the Chair? The idea that the Chair serves “at the pleasure” of the Board is how we removed Burchard in new business, absent of inclusion on the agenda. Whether or not you agree with the “why” of that removal, the “how” remains a dangerous and unresolved loophole that allows for exploitation over political disagreements and personality conflicts. If the Chair has acted in a manner that is contradictory to their duties as a member of the Board, the case for their removal must be presented to membership in a clear and transparent manner with the opportunity for the accused Chair to defend themselves.

Minor Changes to the Bylaws

On the Changing of Titles from Vice Chair to “Special Board Member”

What You Need to Know: This would change the “Vice-Chair” (non-voting) position on the Board’s title to “Special Board Member.”

My Opinion, and How I’d Vote: I’d vote “no” here. Our non-voting members of the Board dedicate significant time and energy to being in advisory roles. They deserve titles that reflect their effort and impact. Changing their title to “Special Board Member” is a pedantic exercise that may undermine and undervalue the appointees. “Vice Chair” is perfectly clear and sufficient.

Other Notes on the Agenda:

On the Report and Recommendations of the Y8-Y10-Y12 Review Group: My friend and Board opponent Mr. Alperstein’s positions on this matter have been misrepresented in a number of online forums. Somewhere along the line, Mr. Alperstein’s position was misconstrued to say “Alperstein is trying to kill national youth events!” This couldn’t be further from the truth—Mr. Alperstein was simply exploring how to promote more fun in Fencing, and I’d urge all the naysayers to read this report.

The scope of this committee was to make recommendations for “Creating a fun, engaging, competitive environment for America’s Youth Fencers.” This is a noble objective and one that all of our members should get behind. As I parse through the working group’s recommendations, I have a few thoughts:

  • The working group’s first recommendation was to require multi-activity participation. The word “require” gives me pause. Fencing is already an expensive sport. Parents have to invest significant time after work to shuttle their kids to and from the club. As a father of a future fencer, I intend to get her involved in other sports that she expresses interest in, but I fear that requiring this to participate in fencing would place unnecessary financial and logistical burdens on parents.
  • The working group presents a recommendation to formalize regional and local participation for Y8. On the one hand, this creates a significant revenue opportunity for the NGB. On the other hand, take a look at the following chart of members by current age, and you’ll notice that as soon as members hit college age, our numbers plummet. Is this due to burnout from years of youth fencing? Possibly. But it’s a question worth exploring in order to retain adult members for the long-run so we can make fencing a sport for life. For the Y8 age group, unsanctioned, local events serve a more admirable a purpose for development than forcing them into high-pressure points events too early.
  • The working group recommends to enshrine Y10 and Y12 as part of the national competition schedule. From a revenue generation perspective (both for the NGB and clubs), this is a logical recommendation. From a long-term development/high performance perspective, this is yet another recommendation worth exploring. Peter Souders, a former national team member in Men’s Sabre has recently begun gathering data to determine if placement on the youth points standings correlates to long-term senior national team selection. While Mr. Souders’ exercise is in its nascent stages, his early findings have found there is close to zero correlation between youth success and senior standings. Revenue is of course important, but we must also consider how such tournaments impact our future Olympians (if at all).
  • The working group recommends having more educational opportunities at youth events. Yes! Education is a must. I am intrigued by Olympian Iris Zimmerman’s initiatives to promote more healthy dynamics between coaches and athletes and believe she should be included in such trainings. And of equal importance, Nicole Polanichka has been an incredible advocate for helping youth recognize signs of grooming and inappropriate conduct. Training for these groups should be focused on promoting mental wellness and ensuring the most vulnerable parts of our membership remain protected.
  • The committee recommends enacting the “Children’s Bill of Rights” in fencing. That Bill of Rights can be found here. All of the rights enumerated in the Bill of Rights are logical…I hope?
  • Explore the option of an adjusted field of play for youth participants. To be honest, I’m not really sure what this would accomplish. Y8-Y10 fencers are already using shorter blades to account for the lack of physical stature they have at that age. Shortening the field of play wouldn’t really do much, as…let’s face it, most of the youth action occurs in the box anyways.
  • The working group recommends expanding youth participation at the local level. Yes—and also no, in my book. Youth events availability is extensive, and we’re already seeing a significant dose of FOMO for that group. What we’re lacking at the local level is opportunities for our recreational adult fencers—including Div 2/3 events, even local open events. How do we account for adult fencers who don’t necessarily want to make an Olympic or National team?
  • The working group recommends shortening the youth season. Yes! Breaks are good. Burnout is bad (both mental and physical). Let’s not overburden children with too much fencing.

Please leave comments on your thoughts below. Believe me, I’ll be listening.  

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