Retrospective musical chairs: new trustee James Heilman sits with outgoing trustee María Sefidari, whom he had just defeated in the community election, at the WMF Board Q&A, Wikimania, in July 2015
On Friday 29 January, more than five weeks after dismissing community-selected trustee James Heilman (Doc James), the Wikimedia Foundation Board of Trustees announced that María Sefidari (Raystorm) would fill the vacancy. This comes after a period of indecision by the Board as to how to deal with the aftermath of its dramatic move last December; shortly after the fatal meeting, chair Patricio Lorente announced that the Board would be referring the matter to the volunteer committee that had run the election, rather than making an immediate decision on the vacant seat.
In the June election, Sefidari gained the fourth-highest ranking under the support/(support+oppose) formula that was introduced in 2012. Appointing her to the vacant seat was one of the options canvassed by the committee, along with the holding of a fresh election, leaving the position vacant until the end of the two-year term in mid-2017, and asking the community what to do. She has already served one term as community-selected trustee, from 2013 to 2015.
How do Sefidari's priorities compare with those of the trustee she is replacing? The Signpost's pre-election survey of candidates' priorities revealed that she gave significantly higher priority than Heilman to reducing the gender gap in editing communities, increasing global-south reader and editor participation, and implementing VisualEditor; and significantly lower priority to increasing editor retention, investing more in collecting data, and providing more engineering resources to improve readers' and editors' experience.
We asked Lorente and Sefidari a number of questions about the events of the past seven weeks. Lorente's responses tended to be non-specific and were occasionally evasive. We asked whether the political damage to the Board in the aftermath of Heilman’s removal could have been minimised by appointing Sefidari straight away rather than after a considerable interval; and similarly, whether he regrets not acting earlier on the community’s objection to the Arnnon Geshuri appointment:
||There are certain things the Board could have done better in these past weeks. This includes how we communicate with the community about our intentions, how we respond to community concerns in a timely way, and communicating with more plain language and direct words. We are taking steps to improve our efforts here. That said, the Board is not likely to make decisions in a rush. We have a very diverse Board, with strong voices, and we take our responsibilities very seriously. We need to listen carefully to each other, work across very different time zones, and other considerations an international governing group has to consider.
However, on one matter he was plain-spoken, taking offence at a comment
by a community member that we put to him, that: "the motivation [of the Board] is perfectly clear: ‘We know María. She doesn’t cause any trouble, like this Heilman’ ” (translated from the German). The chair responded: "I find this comment is disrespectful, not only to María, but also to all Board members. All Board members are passionately committed to our values, and have the integrity to stand up for their ideas. Not one of them will quietly accept any imposition." Sefidari's answer might be seen as more politically adept: "I think that misrepresents the situation. I am not back on the Board because I was a former Board member, but because I was the next person with the highest percentage of support at the last elections. Also, I do have a track record of opposing Board resolutions, which is publicly available."
Lorente did not respond to our question, "As a trustee, are you uncomfortable that the executive director has the support of only 7% of the WMF’s staff, and of only one of the C-level managers?" Sefidari felt freer to comment, perhaps because as a new arrival she does not have to carry the Board's more recent baggage: "It is the Board’s role and responsibility to oversee the Wikimedia Foundation, and to make sure the organization succeeds. We have a legal obligation to oversee the management of the organization and ensure that it fulfills this role. This situation is concerning and is on the radar, as it needs to be."
We asked Sefidari whether she would have preferred an open vote to her appointment without re-election.
||I would have been fine with new elections. I believe elections are important. I have run in two community elections, and believe in the importance of community scrutiny ever since I ran for and became an admin on Spanish Wikipedia nine years ago. That said, I am fully aware this is uncharted territory. ... I think it would have been very easy for the Board to leave the seat vacant, as opposed to running elections which do require resources and time. Even members of the Elections Committee seemed highly reluctant to recommend new elections for that reason and others. And I personally would not have liked a precedent in which after a community-selected member is removed or resigns, the seat remains vacant until the next round. It may be legally valid, but I don’t think it morally is.
Some readers may be surprised that she then raised a scenario that would cast her appointment as nothing more than a band-aid solution: "To expand on this, I think it is perfectly possible to have elections this year, and I am completely open to this option. I think the new Elections Committee can discuss and come up with a new elections system in time for that to happen, even if it is in the second half of the year, without the pressure of knowing they have to get something out fast because otherwise the seat will be vacant at a time when it is important it is not. I would particularly love it if they could figure out a system that promotes diversity."
Sefidari avoided the question of whether Heilman should have been removed, reporting that she was not "up to speed". She wrote: "I was just as surprised as the rest of the community to learn that James had been removed. ... I don’t know yet what happened with James."
Would she have handled the Heilman and Geshuri issues differently to the way the Board did?
||I don’t know what happened with James. But if a meeting was called specifically to discuss his continuity in the Board, there should have been contingency planning, including taking into account how to communicate the decision to the community. The mere fact of the removal was going to be shocking to everyone. The way it was communicated all over the place in bits and pieces was disturbing for everyone. For all I know this was prepared, but James posting on Wikimedia-l upended those plans. ...
As for Arnnon, straight communication would have been desirable. The full Board was not aware of his past circumstances. ... A clear communication along the lines of “we acknowledge the concerns, we are discussing this right now internally and with Arnnon and we intend to reach a resolution at our meeting at the end of January” might have helped set community expectations.
Everyone knows Board members are volunteers with regular lives and jobs and who are in different time zones. Internal communications are not immediate. Most people are reasonable with what can be demanded of Board members. This doesn’t mean there cannot be at least an acknowledgement of the situation. The perception that the Board was paralyzed was very bad.
Does she have any sympathy for Heilman’s view that the Board and the Foundation’s management are too secretive? "I think there is a communications issue, which results in the Board looking secretive, and that needs to be addressed." Was she sympathetic towards the community’s vote of no confidence in Arnnon Geshuri? "I understand why that happened. I think a lot of people identified with the positions of Kat Walsh and Florence Devouard, but were willing to wait for what Arnnon or the Board would say. Once Arnnon’s message came out, the matter was sealed."
Sefidari thinks that community perceptions that the Board and the WMF are adopting corporate language and strategies are "a valid concern. ... There’s a difference between sending corporate messaging devoid of content, and professional messaging that balances the different considerations (legal, transparency) and is informative and useful."
As the community's new representative on the Board, María Sefidari summed up the big picture: "We have reached a stage in the organization’s development where we are expected to be behave professionally, to behave like an organization with a clearly defined mission and 200 employees impacting things around the globe. We need to remember though that we’re an organization built on a community."