The Wikimedia Foundation may be inching toward removing the board seat of its founder Jimmy Wales against his objections, amid a controversy over planned bylaws changes that according to Wales may greatly reduce community influence on the organization and risk "takeover by outside interests who do not understand our values."
As described in detail in last month's Discussion report, on October 7, the Foundation's Board had published a number of proposed bylaw changes for community discussion. These include an increase in the number of Board members from 10 to 16, and removal of the current requirement to hold a regular "community voting" process to fill three of the board seats, in favor of a more vaguely described "community nomination process" determined by the Board. This gave rise to concerns in last month's discussions, which Wales addressed by stating that "I will personally only support a final revision which explicitly includes community voting and I believe it is abundantly clear to everyone on the board that this is mandatory." It appears that he might have been overruled, as the updated bylaws draft posted after that feedback round still omits community voting. However, according to the same update, the item "Remove or change the structure of the Founder seat", previously not part of the proposed changes, was added to the agenda of the subsequent (November 17) meeting of the Board's Governance Committee. (The current bylaws reserve a "Community Founder Trustee Position" for Jimmy Wales on the Board, to which he needs to be reappointed by the Board every three years, with his current term expiring in September 2021. If he is not reappointed, the seat would remain vacant.)
Mike Godwin highlighted the issue earlier this week in the "Wikipedia Weekly" Facebook group, stating – as the former general counsel of WMF responsible for 2008 bylaws change that instituted the Founder seat – it "was designed to give Jimmy Wales a continuing connection to the Foundation and to tie the Board's activities more closely to its history and values ... More than almost any other non-profit enterprise, the Wikimedia Foundation depends on maintaining and honoring its originating culture, of which Jimmy is necessarily a part. In my view, he shouldn't be kicked out of the traditional position before he's ready to go."
"This is in response to the community petition to remove the Founder seat at the recent bylaws consultation. While it is not within the scope of the current proposed changes, it was well supported by multiple community members and is something that Jimmy quite calmly has said is open to considering, so it is being acknowledged as something that could well be explored in the future in several possible ways."
With "the community petition", Sefidari appears to refer to a talk page thread started by Liam Wyatt (User:Wittylama) during last month's consultation about the proposed bylaws changes (which up to that point had not included abolishing the Founder's seat). There, Wyatt had argued that "Now that the WMF is a mature organisation, I do not believe it is appropriate any longer for a single individual to have an infinitely-renewable and non-transferrable position on the board." Several other editors agreed, but former board member Sj objected that "Now strikes me as a particularly poor time to dissolve the founder's seat. To the underlying point, I agree that the WMF (specifically the roles of stewarding the brand, and channeling resources and public interest into support for the movement and the projects) is not currently trending towards ultimate control by the community. If anything, community involvement in governance has decreased and the scale of WMF-internal governance has increased, since non-WMF budgets were frozen and the FDC suspended [cf. Signpost coverage]."
In this week's discussion on Facebook, Jimmy Wales stated:
"In the past few years, there have been several crises that have made it increasingly clear to me: the biggest problem on the board is not a lack of professional expertise, but rather a lack of community representation and control. [...]
I am deeply concerned about the tone of some of the latest proposals from some quarters: a reluctance to be firmly clear that community control – in the form of voting and not just some vague "community-sourced board members" language that might mean anything or nothing – is not negotiable.
I believe that we need to be moving in a mildly different direction with the board expansion. I don't want to make a specific proposal but I will say this: rather than an expansion that keeps community in a slight +1 position, I think we need an expansion that gives the community an absolutely dominant role.
[... My] preference is not to step aside until I am sure that the "professional" appointed seats are absolutely always in service to the community, by making sure that their numbers are – relative to the community numbers – reduced.
Removing my voting seat – yes, it's a good idea in the long run, as I am just one person and not that important in the grand scheme of things. But for now, I feel that my role is to represent the moral conscience of the movement and to prevent takeover by outside interests who do not understand our values. So for those who ask when, I would say: when we are safe. And I don't think that's true just yet."
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