Friday, 22 July 2011

Poetry Society EGM Commentary



trustee n. (plural trustees)

A person to whom property is legally committed in trust, to be applied either for the benefit of specified individuals, or for public uses; one who is intrusted with property for the benefit of another; also, a person in whose hands the effects of another are attached in a trustee process.”

-Wiktionary

I write this having, just this minute, got home from the Poetry Society EGM which ran today from 14:00 until about 17:10. I write this post in the hope of giving as much undiluted/opinionated fact from the meeting whilst summarising points that will take some time to arrive from the full minutes.

I stress the fact that I make this post hastily from notes taken in longhand from a very long and wordy public discussion. If you feel that I have made important omissions or misrepresentations then there are instructions at the end.

As in my previous post, I wish to present these facts in a logical order, rather than a chronological order, under suitable subheadings.

Why the lack of Twitter coverage?

The meeting was held in a lecture theatre with practically no WiFi or 3G coverage. The only person who was able to give regular updates was Jacob Sam-La Rose, a member of the Board. Interestingly, he did this using the #posocegm tag advertised on Silkworms Ink yesterday.

I suggested halfway through the meeting that it was not appropriate for a member of the board to be using the official Poetry Society Twitter-Feed, let alone be the only source of live information to the outside world.

Resignation of the Board and Vote of No Confidence

The first thing announced by the Board is that they would all resign, effective of September. The reason for this deadline being that this is how long they felt it would take to ensure a smooth transition to a new board.

By the end of the EGM however, the Board’s resignation was not enough to satisfy the members present and there was a Vote of No Confidence in which 302 voted for, 69 voted against and 11 abstained.

Discussions very soon moved onto calls from a few (not all) members from the floor who wanted an immediate resignation from some/all members of the Board. It was pointed out that there need to be at least 5 board members at any one given time. Kate Clanchy asked members of the Board to publicly stand down at the meeting – she did not have the full support of the room, despite saying “I speak for everyone here...” several times.


The Root of the Issue (via John Simmons)

The meeting began with an overview of the issue from John Simmons. Here is the narrative that I garnered from it…

It was made absolutely clear that the entire issue stemmed from the breakdown in the working relationship between Poetry Society Director, Judith Palmer, and Poetry Review Editor, Fiona Sampson.

Judith Palmer was single-handedly behind the Arts Council proposal this year which was met with an acceptance and the promise of a substantial increase in funding.

The increased workload of such a successful grant created increased stress for Judith Palmer and it was the view of the Board that she should take an extended vacation whilst some of her workload was delegated.

Around this time ‘people’ were publicly commenting on the personality clash between Palmer and Sampson and the Board felt the need to address this. The Board decided that, for a fixed 3 month period, Sampson would report to them directly rather than go through Palmer due to their untenable working relationship.

John Simmons suggested that there was not time to discuss this properly and so they went ahead with this arrangement without Palmer’s knowledge or consent. Palmer soon resigned with immediate effect.

For perceived legal reasons, the Board and the Society were silent about this. Simmons stated that “our silence fuelled the flames of conspiracy”.

The situation, as it now stands, is that there is no guarantee of the Arts Council Funding ever finding its way to the Poetry Society and all relationships between all the Society’s stakeholders are marred. More damaging still, the Society’s recent expenditures on legal advice make a significant financial strain on them.

Key elements of this narrative were picked apart and scrutinised over the course of the meeting, as I hope to discuss later on in this post.


The Hitler Video

The Board mentioned that, of all the criticism and conspiracy theory that they faced during the past months’ events, the most hurtful was the ‘Downfall’ parody video which likened several Society members to Nazis.



Paul Ranford – Finance Manager

First participant in the Q&A session was Paul Ranford, the Society’s resigned finance manager and teacher of Business Studies. His argument in full can be read here. I shall provide some of the key points of what he (very eloquently) said…

Ranford began by saying that ‘today is a time for sensible words… sensible words.’ He is incredibly concerned that the Society’s Arts Council relationship has been upset and that the Society’s reputation has gone from its absolute height to its absolute lowest.

The financial reserves built up by the Society over 100 years are at roughly £120,000 – if recent legal fees were to continue then this would be very easily depleted. Ranford made mention that talks had been had about valuing the Society’s current Betterton Street property in light of potential funding cuts.

Ranford finished by stating that the Board absolutely failed to support their director when she needed it most and that the ‘sensible words’ he had heard today were not enough.

Large applause soon followed.

Katy Evans-Bush – Where was the HR procedure?

Katy, who has extensive experience of working in the public sector, coupled with extensive experience of conflict resolution, intimated that she was shocked at the apparent lack of procedure involved here.

How is it that the Poetry Review Editor was able to unofficially voice a grievance directly to the Board, circumnavigating the Director and have the issue dealt with that way? Is there a clearly laid out procedure for HR conflicts in the Poetry Society and were they followed?  Was a formal grievance ever even officially filed?

The answer?

There was no formal grievance ever filed and the Board admits that the measures taken were drastic. It was felt by the Board that the two employees needed ‘breathing space’ from each other.

Evans-Bush pointed out that Palmer was never consulted over this ‘breathing space’ and therefore enforced breathing space is tantamount to exile and banishment.

At this point, Niall O’Sullivan turned to me and mouthed the word ‘bull’s-eye’.



Tom Bell, Union Official – What about acas?

Why were none of the professional organisations such as acas not consulted so that trained professionals could guide the resolution in a fair-handed way? Bell made it clear he felt that a Board who intervenes without use of official grievance procedure should resign.


Barbara Cumbers – FS’ contract and JP’s resignation

Barbara asked to know where the grievance between JP and FS stemmed from, and she inquired as to whether it was linked in with comments made about FS receiving increased pay and reduced hours. Paul Ranford produced the minutes which corroborated that Sampson’s working week would be reduced from 4 days to 3, and that he was asked not to reduce her pay.

The response to this was that the arrangement was only temporary (this phrase was used a lot today).

Cumbers’ secondary question was why was it deemed inappropriate for the Director of the Poetry Society to work through her notice period?

The response to this was that “there were a number of occasions where process and procedure weren’t being adhered to [by Judith Palmer]”.

Legal Advice

The Board of Trustees have been seeking, at great expense, professional legal advice having supposedly received several threats of lawsuits from Judith Palmer. Here are a few discussions that arose from this issue:

Question from the floor: Why were you going to the same lawyers used by Rupert Murdoch when there are several law firms set up who are specifically geared towards advising small charity operations such as the Poetry Society?

Answer from the Board: We didn’t know that such companies existed.

Question from the floor: Did you ever receive written legal threats from Judith Palmer with regards to this issue?

Answer from the Board: No. Only verbal threats.

Question from the floor: If you were dealing with a stressed employee, whom you were attempting to support through times of great difficulty, why did you treat a verbal threat as anything other than a ‘heat-of-the-moment’ thing and go down the path of paying for expensive legal advice?

Answer from the Board: The threats were more than a single incident – several people were threatened with legal procedure by JP on a variety of occasions. It is in the interest of any company to seek advice when threatened with legal action.

Pre-Interval – A call for a vote

Philip Polecoff (thank you to Tammy for spelling) suggested that the Board could be nothing but completely ‘lame’ until September and it could only be be damaging to have a stagnant Board resolved to do nothing until then.

(Cut for commercial break)

The Interval

The conversations taking place during the interval were frantic, emotional, passionate and, to an extent, factional. Some felt that they wanted the Board gone immediately following a Vote of No Confidence. Others felt that such a knee-jerk response in an emotional state would be more to do with vengeance than what is good for the society.

The Build-up and The Vote

Laurie Smith announced the motion that, in light of today’s meeting, the members of the Poetry Society present today wish to make a vote of no confidence against the Board of the Society.

Alan Brownjohn stated that he cannot endorse such a vote as it was in no way mentioned on the meeting’s agenda and that it would be nothing but damaging to all concerned. There was an amount of support for this opinion by those who felt that nothing should be finalised in the heat of such an emotive meeting.

Amidst all this was an obscene amount of umming/ahhing about the propriety of a show of hands, a ballot, a poll or any other form of proportional representation. Much grumbling ensued and the vote was finally passed. The results, as you know, 302 voted for, 69 voted against and 11 abstained.

Interim Board Members

4 candidates were put forward to be co-opted as Board Members in the interim between now and the September AGM. Amongst them was Michael Schmidt – questions were asked over the propriety of a PN Review employee being a Poetry Society Trustee but the Board seemed not to see this as a large enough conflict of interest to put him out of the running.

Andrew Motion

No massive story here – I just had a short chat with him after the meeting about his experiences of Jamie’s Dream School. Really Nice Bloke in person.

Everything Else

So, I’ve surely missed a lot of very important details out of this report. I’m sure that, in my furious note-taking I may have misrepresented certain issues. If you feel that this is the case, then please do write to me (poetry@silkwormsink.com) or tell me over twitter or in the comments section of this post, and I will happily happily happily add edits and appendices to the end of this piece of writing.


Appendix 1: The Trustees


The Board of Trustees at this meeting were Laura Bamford (chair), Emma Bravo, Duke Dobing, Alan Jenkins, Anne Jenkins, Wendy Jones, Barry Kernon, John Richmond, Jacqui Rowe, Jacob Sam-La Rose, John Simmons.

Phil Brown
Poetry Editor

18 comments:

  1. Penelope Shuttle23 July 2011 08:10

    Thank you for this excellent account, Phil. I was unable to be present at the EGM so I am particiularly glad to get your report. Penelope.

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  2. Are the names of our Board members, our Trustees, also a secret?

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  3. No Jackie, thank you for pointing out such a glaring omission, I shall add these in now.

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  4. As per names of board members, comments here prompt me to repeat here what I was just now writing elsewhere in a blog that already states as truth the Board's contention, subtlely backed up Guardian article that problem is between two named people.

    The blog says two “women” and, yes, everyone's bought the story of a ‘cat-fight” between them which is a complete deflection from taking responsibility for example of 24,000 expenditure.

    But I wanted to emphasise here: since Sampson and Palmer are named by all why is that the board members whose behvaiour is so questionable according to Ranford’s statement aren't named. They enjoy the privilege of anonymity but Sampson and Palmer do not? And this doesn’t stink to high heaven to anyone else?! Are people too scared?

    We're meant to base our assessment on matters according to those now proven to have been economical with the truth? But this is exactly why pays PR people, faciliators and lawyers 24,000. Job done I'd say.

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  5. Christine Michael23 July 2011 14:39

    Thanks for a great summary Phil; I've also blogged on the EGM at http://poetryneverpays.blogspot.com - and I'll add a link to yours. I'm quite a new member of the Society and I thought it must be really well run because of the quality of its output. Very disillusioning to realise that there has been such a lot of trouble. I don't envy the new board their task but will be keen to support them in it.

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  6. You raise an excellent point Eva. At the meeting, we were provided with a list of the board with brief biographical notes on each. I would be happy to type these out and post them if you feel people might benefit from this resource.

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  7. Hi Christine,

    I would suggest that the high quality of the Poetry Society's output was down to the diligence and high levels of skill from the employees and not down to the Board. I have worked in the office at Betterton street a few times and it is always very clear what a superb workforce full of conscientious and talented people they have there. We can't lose sight too of the fact that Fiona Sampson is an excellent editor and has continued to make Poetry Review an outstanding publication that members of the Poetry Society are glad to be subscribed too.

    I think it would also be fair to say that the governance of the society probably has been good on some fronts, but the Board was not prepared, equipped or in any way savvy enough to deal with HR disputes in a measured way, nor were they in fit shape to handle an internet-based community's natural curiosity.

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  8. 1) Here are the people not mentioned in the report but on the Poetry Society website:
    Vice Presidents: Roger McGough, Hugo Williams, Sean O'Brien, Michael Longley, Ian McMillan, Benjamin Zephaniah, Don Paterson, Simon Armitage, Anne Stevenson, Carol Ann Duffy
    Trustees: Laura Bamford (Acting Chair), Emma Bravo, Duke Dobing, Alan Jenkins, Anne Jenkins, Wendy Jones, Barry Kernon, John Richmond, Jacqui Rowe, Jacob Sam-La Rose, John Simmons
    Honorary Members: Paul Muldoon, Lord Gavron, Seamus Heaney, Andrew Motion, Les Murray, Dr Alastair Niven, Norman Willis, Fleur Adcock, Joan Bakewell
    2) You didn't spell out the supposed differences between the Editor and the Director. Surely not the underpaid and hardworking editor's asking for a 3-day week?
    3) Who suggested and who appointed the lawyers?
    4) How does one get to be a trustee now?
    Thanks for your excellent report.
    Leah Fritz

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  9. Hi Leah,

    1. I did spot a few (4-5) of the Vice Presidents and the Honorary Members in the crowd, but their capacity seemed wholly observational at the meeting.

    2. The 'differences' were not spelled out much further than a supposed personality clash at the meeting. You are quite right to question this - no tangible altercation has been cited, nor has any suggestion of blame been placed on either party. All that has been alluded to is that these two women did not get on with each other and that this had entered the public forum. Members of the floor did indeed suggest a link to the potential reduced hours, realignment of management, tenure and ability to work from home of the editor of the PR... but this was never cited as the reason for this clash.

    3. Again, a question that was never answered. It was certainly the feeling I got that the Board stood as one. They knew what mistakes had been made and they knew what rocks would be thrown at them, but they stood as one and did not disclose who in particular had made certain decisions. In all honesty, I respect this, as it shows that all board-members feel accountable for the actions of the body as a whole.

    4. It is the Board's decision who gets to be a trustee in interim before the AGM. They will take on board suggestions from members. At the AGM in September however there is a vote between the standing nominees. Members have until then to nominate and campaign.

    Hope this helps,

    Phil Brown

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  10. Dear Phil,
    I do believe that making a decision while sidelining the director on the grounds that she's 'overtired'? sick in the head? and then telling her to take time off to rest up would drive any director around the bend. Whatever differences there were between her and the editor should have been worked out between them, with perhaps a friend of both facillitating if the two of them wanted that. Both those women are highly intelligent and articulate, and I'm sure they could have worked it out between them without such interference.Somebody on that board lacked common sense.
    I think it does matter who was pulling the strings there and who got the lawyer. Sometimes when someone seems authoritative the others hang back out of politeness.
    Nevertheless, blowing it all up with a hostile agenda for a big meeting was also insensitive and foolish. We are poets, not warriors or even politicians. We are people who are wonderful at communicating. Why don't we do what we do best - make things beautiful.
    Peace and love,
    Leah

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  11. Totally agree with everything you've said Leah. If I had been part of that particular board however, I would have found it difficult to resolve my disagreement with certain choices that had been made with the fact that being a board member is effectively a subscription to the values and decisions of the majority of that team.

    You are certainly on the money in suggesting that it's time to get back to the business of making things beautiful.

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  12. Dear Phil,
    Thanks for your reply. I'd just like to know who to get in touch with in order to make a nomination. Leah

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  13. Hi Leah,

    It certainly seemed at the meeting as though that was our only opportunity to nominate people for the interim board (ie. filling in until September).

    With regards to the nomination process leading up to September's AGM, I would recommend starting with info@poetrysociety.org.uk or 020 7420 9880.

    I might also suggest that you find some way between now and September's AGM of publicising your nomination and giving reasons for their suitability - on a blog or website or facebook page or a series of flashmobs, etc.

    All the best,

    Phil

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  14. Dear Phil,
    Thanks for your information. I'll try the info first. I don't do facebook because I'm afraid I'd spend my life there, but once I've been able to make the nomination, I'll find ways to communicate widely.
    All best, Leah

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  15. In my experience poets aren't such great communicators - that is, no better than anybody else. And I think everyone at the Poetry society is underpaid and hardworking, not just the editor.

    I have no personal experience of either the editor or the director - I know one not at all, and the other only to nod hello to - but a 'solution' to a 'dysfunctional relationship' which gives one party exactly what they want, and undermines the other publicly, has a tinge of perhaps a hint of bias in it? At the least it doesn't seem an equitable 'solution'. This for me is critical and has to be taken into consideration in the discussions we're told are going on around whether the director might return to post.

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  16. Katy:

    The Board: But you weren't there, there are reasons why we had to do what might have appeared biassed to you.

    Katy: What reasons?

    The Board: We can't say. But you have no right to speculate.

    Katy: I won't speculate if you tell me what actually happened.

    The Board: No.

    Katy: Because the truth makes you look just as bad as everyone's speculations?

    The Board: Stop being mean, we're resigning. BROADSHEEETS... TELL THE POETS TO STOP BEING MEEEEAAAAN TO US... THEY KEEP BEING MEEEEEAAAAN!

    Broadsheets: Bloody poets. They all have sex with their sisters don't they? I watched that film about Byron once.

    Katy: So... are you going to answer the reasonable question I asked?

    Broadsheets and Board: OH MY GOD SHE'S HYSTERICAL.

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  17. I can feel a poem coming on.....

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  18. Carver Governance works well for the membership organisation I'm employed by - www.carvergovernance.com - described as 'enables the board to focus on the larger issues, to delegate with clarity, to control management's job without meddling, to rigorously evaluate the accomplishment of the organization; to truly lead its organisation.'

    ReplyDelete