In an unprecedented move that has sent shockwaves across the movement, the Wikimedia Foundation's Board of Trustees voted 8–2 to remove James Heilman (Doc James) from the board effective immediately, citing "serious consideration", but no specific evidence. The resolution was published on the Foundation's wiki, and Heilman was removed from the list of trustees within hours. Fellow community-elected representative Dariusz Jemielniak was the only board member other than Heilman to oppose the motion; notably, the third community-elected trustee, Denny Vrandečić, supported the removal of his colleague. The standard appointment resolution for community-elected trustees includes a clear reference to the possibility of dismissal – in the case of Heilman, his term was "for a term of two years beginning on July 15, 2015, and continuing until September 1, 2017 or until the Board appoints a replacement for that seat, whichever comes first."
The announcement was made on the Wikimedia-l mailing list by chair Patricio Lorente, who said that the board is exploring its options to fill the vacant seat. For his part, Heilman also declined to specify any details about his dismissal, either publicly to the mailing list or in response to Signpost inquiries. Heilman was elected to the board in 2015 for a two-year term.
According to the Board's bylaws, any member may be removed by a majority vote of the trustees at any time, with or without cause. In this case, no explanation has been offered by either the Board or by the WMF’s chief communications officer Katherine Maher, who shared with the Signpost only that to her knowledge this is the first time that the Board has removed a member, while not answering our question as to whether the removal was related to unauthorized disclosure of information.
It is now clear that Heilman had come under pressure from his fellow trustees for some time. He wrote on Jimmy Wales' talkpage:
|Yes I was given the option of resigning over the last few weeks. As a community elected member I see my mandate as coming from the community which elected me and thus declined to do so. I see such a move as letting down those who elected me to do a difficult job.
Although the Board has promised a statement detailing the reasons for the Heilman dismissal, as of publication none has been released, and the Board is under no legal obligation to provide those reasons. The Signpost understands that Lorente has been negotiating a joint statement with Heilman, but that a result is not imminent.
Jimmy Wales, who holds the founder seat on the Board and supported the motion to remove Heilman, responded to an inquiry on his talk page:
|I couldn't possibly agree more that this should have been announced with a full and clear and transparent and NPOV explanation. Why didn't that happen? Because James chose to post about it before we even concluded the meeting and before we had even begun to discuss what an announcement should say. WMF legal has asked the board to refrain from further comment until they've reviewed what can be said – this is analogous in some ways to personnel issues. Ideally, you would have heard about this a couple of days from now when a mutual statement by James and the board had been agreed. For now, please be patient. Accuracy is critically important here, and to have 9 board members posting their own first impressions would be more likely to give rise to confusions.
In response to allegations that he was blaming Heilman, Wales replied:
|In what way did I do that? I did not. I merely gave you a very clear, transparent, honest and NPOV explanation of why this was announced in this fashion. We were having a meeting about it, and hadn't begun to discuss how to give the full explanation to the community in fairness to everyone, and James decided to simply announce it without explaining anything. That's just what happened, it's a fact. If you take it as "blaming" him in some way, you are reaching beyond what I said ... He's the one who went public without warning in the middle of the meeting.
It remains unclear what prompted the meeting, which appears to have been specially called, and whether Heilman had any foreknowledge of the proceedings. Former WMF trustee Phoebe Ayers told the Signpost that the chair, vice chair, or any two trustees can call a meeting pursuant to guidelines on timing and notification in the bylaws, and that votes that are not going to be unanimous are conducted either in person or on the phone for a formal voice vote.
Shortly after the announcement, we spoke by video link with Heilman, who was in a Japanese ski resort, seemingly in good spirits but urgently awaiting a day of downhill skiing after significant overnight snowfalls. He cautioned that he was under an obligation not to speak openly about specifics. Heilman is a known advocate of transparency and openness in Foundation practices. We asked what he sees as his contributions during his short membership of the Board. He replied:
|The most concrete example was my advocacy for the removal of superprotect – collaborating with fellow Wikimedians on that issue has been one of my successes. ... And when I started my position, I found that communication between the staff, the executive, and the Board were not as good as I expected, and the level of secrecy was greater than I expected. I have definitely tried to improve that. ... I believe my actions were always in the best interests of the movement, even though not always perfectly performed. My impression is that it takes all new trustees a while to learn the ways of a board of a large organization.
Should certain things remain confidential? "Yes, there are definitely certain aspects that need to be kept confidential, but this should not extend to the overarching strategy at the WMF. In a movement like ours these discussions need to be public." Does he think voters were attracted by his achievements in medical content on WMF sites? "Yes, but more than that, I believe I have a good understanding of large parts of the movement; I share its values; and I'm outspoken. I think many voters probably expected that I'd say and do what I've done."
There was immediate reaction to the announcement on the Wikimedia-l mailing list, on Wikipedia, and in third-party forums, including the Wikipedia Weekly Facebook Group.
Pete Forsyth, who was briefly a candidate for the WMF Board in 2015 before withdrawing and ultimately endorsing each of the three community-elected representatives, expressed grave concern at the Board’s decision. He wrote on the mailing list: "With this action, eight Trustees with little accountability overruled several hundred volunteers and another Trustee who literally earned the most support votes of any Trustee in the organization's history."
He went on to tell the Signpost:
|There are a great many unanswered questions in this situation; those of us who care about the Wikimedia Foundation should be open to reassessing how effectively every member of the board, up until and including yesterday's vote, has upheld that duty ... There is no small irony in this incident happening [close to] the expiration of the five year strategic plan developed in 2010, at a cost of about 5 to 10% of the organization's budget at that time, with the input of 1,000 stakeholders. ... In my view, Trustees elected by the community do indeed have a duty to maintain lines of communication, and to inform the community of important events. That duty is secondary to their duty to the organization, but it is still of vital importance.
This raises an issue that commonly leads to tension where the boards of corporations, non-profits, and public entities include elected stakeholder seats. It is typical for board members to be required to sign a pledge of personal commitment, and this is the case for all WMF trustees. That can leave elected representatives of stakeholder groups who elected them in a difficult position: should they consult with their constituents when there's a risk it might be seen as breaching confidentiality? (Editor's note: the original version of this story stated that board members were required to sign a non-disclosure agreement.)
Several commenters on Facebook were more outspoken, including statements such as: "I am very unhappy with the board's weak statement and the fact that this was opposed by ⅔ of the elected members of the board. It sounds like this was a purging of community voices that disagreed with the majority or in West Coast newspeak 'culture fit'. This is why appointing a majority of the board is a mistake."
Within a day of the Board's action, a page was set up on Meta entitled WMF Transparency Gap, with several WMF accounts among the contributors. The brief page points readers to the talkpage for "developing topics", and links to a WMF Board resolution in 2013 on transparency. The Signpost understands that muted reports of staff discontent within the organization have been circulating, although the matters at issue are unclear. Former trustee Samuel Klein told the Signpost: "A discussion in detail with interested staff would not be a bad idea."
This story has been characterised more by what we do not know than what we do. A fast-moving situation is likely to remain in high profile for some time, with broad and far-reaching ramifications for the movement in terms of organizational process, transparency, and community relations.