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Editorial: NZAF Board left dangling on a thread

Sun 20 Nov 2005 In: HIV

Has the Board of the New Zealand AIDS Foundation escaped from the battlefield of controversy back to the "sunlit uplands" (my apologies to Winson Churchill) of life as usual? The sad answer, as everyone at last night's historic and worrying Board AGM, including the board members themselves, must sense, is "no." In a remarkably emotional and bitter speech to the meeting, Board Chair Simon Robb articulated what everyone else in the room was thinking. It's true the members of the Foundation voted against remits expressing no confidence in the Board and asking for Board members resignations. It's also true that a few people expressed some degree of limited confidence in the Board. But the overwhelming message from the floor was: "We are not calling for your resignations because to do so would hurt the Foundation's good name, provide ammunition to its detractors and create a break in the vital continuity of governance. However, your levels of expertise in governance and understanding of the environment in which the Foundation operates have been unacceptable, divisive and corrosive." The vote of no confidence was, therefore, not a vote of confidence. The board escaped by a whisker but clearly does not currently have the confidence of the membership. In his bristling speech in which he outlined his reasons for joining the Board, the difficulties of the admittedly unpaid job and his implication that if the members didn't like the way the board was executing its duties then he wanted no part of any alternatives, and his usurping the function of the meeting's chair to eyeball a interjecting Foundation member who is also a senior staff member and snap at him to "just shut it up!" Simon Robb triggered the clear doubt that he is in any state to continue as the Board chair. Warren Lindberg, an old NZAF hand, summed it up best: "If you can't stand the heat Simon, get out of the kitchen." It is to some extent a shame that Robb has ended up in this stressful position. He became chair when the former chair Clive Aspin was ousted by his fellow board members following public outrage at his leadership tactics, agendas and statements regarding HIV and racism. He stepped into the hot seat (whether willingly or by default we cannot know) and inherited the role as board frontman for a potentially explosive situation which required collective board insight, strategic subtlety, tact and the ability to build bridges with disaffected but important stakeholders such as the Foundation staff, membership and long-time AIDS Foundation stalwarts. It has to be said Robb has not aquitted himself well, and neither has the board. Where the main cause of these deficiencies lies, who amongst the board members bears the responsibility for the still live fiasco, is unclear due to collective board responsibility being maintained throughout. It is clear also that a few spotty areas of the Foundation's constitution have contributed to the mess, but a more competent board with better leadership could have addressed the constitution in more constructive ways, as previous boards have done from time to time. So, for now there is a ghastly, uneasy truce, with each side, board and membership, left standing face to face, eyeball to eyeball, growling like two tigers protecting their territory. It is not a situation which engenders much confidence in the ability of the Board to restore an environment in which the Foundation is able to concentrate on its main job, that of protecting New Zealand men who have sex with men from a blowout of HIV infections, while also supporting those with the virus and maintaining supportive relations with other entities also working in these fields. This timing of all this is, bluntly, crap. For reasons which are not yet clear there is an upsurge in new infections here and in similar communities and populations overseas. It's a complex and worrying situation which requires 110% effort from the Foundation's committed, remarkably skilled and tireless workers, from the Executive Director down, to address. The board's ham-fisted tactics, unpopular proposals (or were they actually originally decisons, made without any consultation?) and achingly bad communications and community contacts, have unsettled everyone at just the wrong time. So, for now it all boils down to one question, which was not actually addressed at last night's intense AGM. Which option would have caused the most or least damage... the public ignominy and possible political fallout of a board mired in controversy, showing few skills at insightful governance and currently without the confidence of its membership being clearly called on to resign and doing so to clear the way for an interim board of experienced and respected past board members to take the reins? Or the Foundation struggling on to do its work while above it the existing board struggles to regroup, upskill and restablish a constructive and genuine rapport with its community, staff and funders, a process that is not guaranteed of success or any timely result. Last night the Foundation's collective membership (and I should declare that I am a member, as well as a journalist in this affair) somehow voted to leave the board publicly dangling on a thread, robustly criticised, clearly floundering and under notice to get its act together. That's a dreadful situation for all concerned. As spokesperson for the Board, Simon Robb declined to talk with gay media after the meeting, though we should be able to talk with him tomorrow (Monday). But this matter has not been resolved, and if anything the AGM just brought into uncomfortably sharp focus the issues which have been bubbling away for six months now. It is to be hoped that the Board, in whose court the matter now firmly rests, is at this very moment appraising the expressed sentiments of the membership, evaluating its own position and aptitudes, and preparing to reveal as soon as possible a strategy, or even the start of a strategy, to pull one of the world's most respected and successful HIV prevention organisations back from the precipice of division and discontent. Meanwhile will continue to sift through the sentiments and statements aired at the AGM, pubishing information and analysis of the issues, personalities and difficulties surrounding the Board, on a daily basis, untill sanity and stability are restored. Watch this space! Jay Bennie - 20th November 2005    

Credit: Jay Bennie

First published: Sunday, 20th November 2005 - 12:00pm

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