Op Ed: Ladder Hazards

Ladder Hazards

A BYC NHT Op Ed by Paul Kamen

(BYC member since ’84, O-Dock berther since ’77, waterfront urchin since ’73)

I have been active in three major non-profit organizations in the Berkeley Marina: Cal Sailing Club; the Berkeley Racing Canoe Center; and Berkeley Yacht Club. They all serve different user groups in different ways. But Berkeley Yacht Club is unique in its management structure: It has a “ladder system.” The other organizations do not.

When someone is elected to a Board of Directors position at CSC or at BRCC, There is no term limit. Commodores at CSC typically stay on for 3-5 years. Treasurers for 5-10. I was CSC Commodore from ’79 to ’82, and only resigned because I was gone all summer racing Pac Cup and Clipper Cup. My tenure as First Vice (in charge of primary sailing instruction) was ’75 to ’79. These terms are not atypical. Same in BRCC: I signed on as Vice Pres. (in charge of operational safety and certifications) in ’05, after a year as founding President. 12 years later I’m still VP.

The point is, the board positions in these orgs attract people who: a) like doing their job; b) learn to do their job well; and c) stay in their chosen position for a long time.

Now compare to the “ladder system” at BYC. The bottom rung is Fleet Captain, and this person moves through the so-called “flag officer positions” to Rear Commodore, Vice Commodore, and finally Commodore (after which they usually take off cruising). The club is very poorly served by this system, and it’s time to change.

We often get board members put in important positions who have little interest and less ability in their designated roles. And if they do acquire some skill and experience, next year they move on and another novice takes over. The usual justification for this tradition is that “the Commodore needs to have the experience in all the major roles.” Nonsense. The Commodore needs to be good at being Commodore. That means leadership and people skills, and some PR chops - not organizing dinner meetings or running races.

The problem is especially acute when we look at the Fleet Captain position. According to our Bylaws, the Fleet Captain has one primary responsibility: Keeping track of the fleet, which means maintaining a current and accurate list of members’ boats and related details. This is actually a much larger task than it might appear at first, and provides plenty of challenge for a dedicated volunteer. It’s also critical for many other club functions, especially membership recruiting, cruise organization, and volunteer calls. And yet, somehow this binding definition of the Fleet Captain’s responsibilities has been lost. Instead we have a newbie Race Committee every year, making the same newbie blunders as they learn the job. Yes, there have in the past been some FCs who did the job well. And it should also be emphasized that our current (2017) FC has done a tremendous amount of work to run our racing program. He deserves our respect, support and appreciation. But lack of experience has made his job far more difficult and time-consuming than it needs to be, and has also resulted in some very poor race management early in the term. He will probably be doing it right by the end of the summer, but then a few months later we’ll have another newbie. Messing up Chowder and Friday Night starts with skewed lines and timing errors is not something that a Commodore-in-training should be asked to do. Race management needs experience and continuity. It should never have been allowed to become a ladder position.

The BYC Board of Directors includes several “at large” positions with no specific responsibility. I propose that one of these positions be designated as “Entry-Level Race Manager,” in charge of Chowder and Friday Night races (basically what I did for 25 years). Another at-large Board position should be “Race Committee Chair” in charge of YRA races and regattas (basically what Bobbi Tosse is still doing, but she won’t be doing it forever). These positions might attract people who actually enjoy these roles, do them well, and stick around for many years getting better and better at it.

The same is true with every other ladder position on the Board – although race management is the ongoing failure that I’m most familiar with. It is way past time to scrap the antiquated ladder system and elect people to the Board who are good at what they are elected to do. The flag officer positions are important in their own right. They should not be used as an obstacle course along the road to Commodore.

Specific recommendations:

1) Re-define two of the “at large” Board positions as described above. This should be codified by a Bylaws change.

2) The Nominating Committee should nominate people who actually want to perform well in the position for which they are nominated, and are likely to stay in that position for more than one year. (This task might be a lot easier if we had a current membership list that accurately reflected new members’ interests and skills, but that’s another issue…)

3) Do away with the Soviet style "one candidate, vote yes or no" ballots. The Nominating Committee should recommend two candidates for each position.

4) There is free software for managing elections in a small non-profit like BYC, without compromising security or anonymity. We are entitled to secure and secret balloting.