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Letter Highlights Feelings Among Some in USA Rugby Congress

Friday Jul 24, 2009 in Off the Field USA Rugby

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A memo signed by 14 of USA Rugby’s 27 Congress members was sent to John Mullett, the Congress Representative to USA Rugby’s Board, on July 10, 2009 and is just a symptom of an ongoing disagreement in the sport’s governing circles about who should know what, and why.

The memo addressed a perceived lack of communication between the Board and Congress, and noted that USA Rugby’s Bylaws required the Board to keep Congress apprised of planning developments so Congress could do its job.

With 14 of the 27 Congress members signing the letter, the memo indicates that the majority Congress members feel they are in the dark about the Boards activities (or lack thereof).

This feeling of isolation was accentuated after the last Board meeting, when John Mullett, in his report to Congress, chastised Congress members for calling him to ask questions in a combative manner. (Mullett wasn’t against communicating with Congress members, but characterized a number of calls as “ambush calls.”)

The 14 who signed were: (Dana Bateman, Annie Collier, Farrah Douglas, Paul Ganey, Martin Gardner, Gary Heavner, Patrick Kane, Danita Knox, Dan Lyle, Ellen Owens, Eric Pittelkau, Ines Rodriguez, Tom Schmitt, Steve Vent)

The full letter can be accessed here.

Too Aggressive”
ERugbyNews discussed the situation with Congress members who signed the letter, and some who did not.

‘the final draft of the letter was one I wanted to sign,” said Ellen Owens (Pacific Coast RFU). “It merely requested documents and information we need to do our jobs as Congress members. Some people might say we don’t need all that information, but we”d rather have it and make that decision now rather than get to a meeting and not accomplish anything because we never saw the relevant information.”

“I don’t have first-hand knowledge of the reasons [the letter was drafted] but as was explained to me, Congress had asked for operational plans from the Board and they don’t exist,” said Eric Pittelkau (Mid-Atlantic RFU). “The letter points out what is required by the Bylaws and cites the Bylaws as the authority for requesting these documents from the Board.”

But wanting information isn’t enough of a reason, said others. Frank Merrill (Pacific Coast RFU), who did not sign, said he agreed in principle with the idea of getting information, but said the letter was not the way to go about it.

“It was too much saber-rattling,” Merrill said. “What happens with a lot of organizations is they don’t do anything for 170 days and then with 10 days to go before the meeting, all of a sudden they are in a rush to prepare.”

Asked whether this June 10th letter doesn’t take steps to accumulate information early (Congress and the Board meet September 12th in Dallas), Merrill said “It’s a good thing to get information, but instead of just calling someone to ask them, they got confrontational. There was too much negativism.”

David Pelton (Pacific Coast) also didn’t sign and in a letter explaining his position said that while the Bylaws require the Board to keep Congress informed, the Bylaws should be looked on as guidelines rather than hard-and-fast.

In a letter to one of the signers (whose name Pelton removed before forwarding it to the press), Pelton said:

“Why is this needed? Sure it’s in the By-laws, but is this a process point that’s being ignored for the sake of efficiency OR is there something that is not being done (in the eyes of yourself and others) that should be done? And is it that you feel that if the annual operation plan is not being created, then Congress would not have say in what the business priorities should be” Considering that the Congress has no say in the operation plans from the standpoint of the By-laws, what is it that you and others are hoping to achieve?”

Owens said Congress does have a say. “Congress is evolving,” she said. “I want to be ready to vote on or ratify a variety of issues, but I need information. That’s what is required of us. We need to know beforehand what the Board and the Board members are doing.”

No Answers
All this, in the end, begs the question of whether Congress members trust the Board. The Board has not delivered on many of the big promises of 2006 and 2007 - no major fundraising and sponsorship coups. They haven’t delivered on minor ones such as less transparency in decision-making, and they’ve made some outright blunders in terms of organizing the youth game and the hiring and loss of Scott Johnson.

What is telling is evidence that the Congress does feel somewhat left out. In June ERugbyNews sent every Congress Member a series of questions and only two members answered. The questions were sometimes open-ended, such as “What is job #1 in your opinion?” Some where more specific: “What progress has been made in developing the new Strategic Plan since the old plan expires this year?” and “What progress do you think is being made to actually implement said plan”“

Congress members ERugbyNews contacted to discuss the questions said they didn’t answer because they didn’t know the answers.

“I think Congress members who used to be on the old Board feel in the loop, and some newer members do not,” said Bob Latham, USA Rugby Board Vice Chair. Latham said this despite the fact that several Congress members who signed were longtime Board members back when the Board’s structure was different. “I do think the new Congress members are trying to figure out how they can be useful. But this letter is just adding drama to it all. They were getting information.”

Some obviously disagree.

“A lot of information seems to have fallen into a black hole and it’s a source of frustration for a lot of Congress members,” said Pittelkau. “The June 10th letter that Congress sent to the Board seeks some very basic information: a strategic plan, a business plan, an operation plan, and a budget, things that Congress is supposed to approve in September.

“It’s great, for example, to say that we want to drive growth in the Youth and High School sectors, but how’s that going to happen? Saying that State Based Organizations are going to drive youth and high school growth is like saying the sky’s blue. Everyone knows that; but how?“

“We didn’t give a deadline and haven’t gotten a response one way or the other yet,” added Gary Lee Heavner (Northeast RFU). “I view the letter as a request that information be provided as soon as possible so that we can work on it before the September 12th Congress meeting.”

Defining Roles
In the end it seems to come down to defining roles. In 2005, the old USA Rugby Board was dissolved, and became the Congress. The new, streamlined, business-oriented Board was installed with plenty of fanfare. It consists of nine people: two international athletes (currently Francois Viljoen and Jen Joyce), a member of the Congress (currently John Mullett) and six others elected (currently chaired by Kevin Roberts).

Putting aside criticisms that this Board has failed to resolve many of the major issues of American rugby, the now 3 ½-year-old structure has yet to be clearly defined.

“Congress is evolving,” said Owens. “There’s not a lot of specificity in the bylaws, so members don’t know exactly what we should be voting on.”

“In terms of our plans, finances, reporting and personnel, the business operation of USA Rugby is better than it’s ever been,” said Heavner. “How much of that is due to the Board, as opposed to other individuals, is not for me to say. But they’re definitely steering the ship in the right direction.”

”[The new structure] hasn’t worked out as well as we’d hoped,” countered Pittelkau. “I don’t know the extent to which Board members are responsible for any of the advances we’ve made. For example, I can recall an email that came from USA Rugby which pointed to increases in the number of televised rugby games and hours (if a game was re-shown a number of times), compared to some time ago. There is definitely an increase in TV exposure but how much the Board, Nigel Melville or USA Rugby’s staff had to do with it, I have no idea. It was an increase, but was it a modest increase, could it have been more, could it have gotten there on its own” I just don’t know.”

Pelton, in his letters, seemed to imply the Congress has no power at all, and asking to be more involved is a waste of time: ‘think about our Congress meetings,” wrote Pelton. “These are informational meetings, not a chance to vote. We get a chance to lobby, but that ability doesn’t change based on the operation plans. And given the way a Board (not just our Board) acts, a Congress meeting is not going to see the Board go back with an operational plan and come back in the meeting with a different plan. Instead they are going say thanks for the input, and go back and either look at the feedback or ignore it. I don’t see how this changes if there isn’t an operation plan.”

Unconditional Support
In June’s Board Meeting, Chair Kevin Roberts led a discussion on the role of the Congress. Here was Roberts’s final list of responsibilities for the Congress:

1. Share in the development of the strategic plan and help implement the plan;

2. Support the BOD unconditionally on every aspect of the strategic plan developed;

3. Support the USA Rugby Staff on their execution of the strategy;

4. Ensure USA Rugby has a world class governance structure;

5. Each Congress member to serve on a committee or TU/LAU leadership position;

6. Serve as communications partner between the BOD and membership.

Item #6, in the form of answering questions from ERugbyNews, couldn’t be fulfilled because the Congress members didn’t feel they had enough information. Congress members have said that to fulfill item #1, they need an answer to their letter. And to fulfill item #2 - unconditional support of the Board’s plans - even if they wanted to they need to know what they are supporting before the September 12 meeting. The letter’s deadline is August 10.

“Supposedly Board Chairman Kevin Roberts is also Chairman of the Congress, but I don’t know that there’s been any communication from Kevin to Congress members explaining a vision, a direction, or why he wants to do something and asking us to go along with it,” said Pittelkau. “One thing I saw recently was a quote from Roberts that he wanted Congress’s unconditional approval for whatever the Board wanted to do. That strikes me as asking an awful lot.”

Whether the letter was too negative, too much saber-rattling, or an innocent attempt to get information in advance of an important meeting, it’s clear that after more than three years of the current governance structure, USA Rugby’s Congress is still struggling with defining what it is supposed to do, what it should be allowed to know, and whether its supposed job of oversight over the Board carries any weight whatsoever.

-  Ed Hagerty and Alex Goff


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