For IBMA, Time For A Change

Jon WeisbergerIt’s time for Jon Weisberger to resign as the chairman of IBMA’s board of directors.

I don’t say that lightly. As a lifetime member of the organization, I’ve put $1,000 where my mouth is because I believe in bluegrass music, earn part of my living in it as a songwriter and a critic, and understand the need for a strong and effective industry trade organization.

But it has become clear to me in recent weeks that Weisberger is not the strong, forward-thinking leader that IBMA needs at the helm at this critical juncture. He’s a talented musician and one of the best songwriters around. But in his IBMA role, he is divisive, dismissive and argumentative.

Three times in the past few weeks, Weisberger has offered to resign. So, at a board meeting on Nov. 19, the board was asked to either affirm its confidence in the chair or express a preference to replace him. The vote, according to the minutes of the meeting, was 11-5 for Weisberger to stay.

Instead, three more board members resigned the following day—Henri Deschamps and Brian Smith, who moved and seconded the vote, and board Treasurer Elizabeth Wightman. That brings to five the number of board members who have quit since the World of Bluegrass conference in Raleigh, in which the board voted to express a lack of confidence in Executive Director Nancy Cardwell, which led to her resignation.

UPDATE 4:14 p.m.: (Cardwell said today that she decided to resign during World of Bluegrass week, before the board decided to look for someone else, but did not inform anyone on the board or executive committee of her decision until she sent an email the following week, on Oct. 7. She said she wasn’t told of the board’s interest in seeking someone else until two days after she submitted her resignation.)

At this point, I would argue, the board’s vote of confidence for Weisberger should take a backseat to the reality that IBMA is in trouble and that when the focus should have been on moving on, finding a new executive director and figuring out how to improve the organization’s flaccid membership numbers, valuable time was wasted on what was essentially petty politics.

Most importantly, he got into a spat with then Co-Chair Craig Ferguson that ended with Weisberger forcing Ferguson’s removal from the board through a heavy-handed reading of board policies. Yes, Ferguson missed two board meetings. But having his business under water because of flooding in Colorado would have earned him a waiver from the board if he had been given the chance to ask for it, as the rules allowed. Weisberger later apologized, but a good board member was gone and former board member Dwight Worden surrendered his lifetime membership as a sign of solidarity with Ferguson.

But Ferguson’s departure wasn’t the end. Here is how the board’s minutes recount the motion made by Deschamps, one of the biggest champions of bluegrass music you can find:

Members were asked to “proceed to a formal and official board discussion about the leadership, governance and credibility lost by the chair, co-chair at the time, the (executive committee) and the board as a result of the conflict between the chair and the former co-chair, the resignations and the disruptions; in the office, the membership, the board and in relation to our partners in Raleigh, the disruption to board business which has now been going on for weeks, non-stop, with every increasing escalation and culminating in a crisis.”

There was more, but the point is clear. One-third of IBMA’s board—if you exclude Weisberger’s own vote to express confidence in himself—voted to say that important work wasn’t getting done.

Important work, such as finding a way to convince more bluegrassers that membership in the trade organization is a good investment.

Or finding business partners willing to team up with IBMA in Raleigh and beyond. Getting them on board will certainly be more difficult in the wake of all the resignations and histrionics.

And finally, and most importantly, the hiring of a new executive director. The now-public arguments over Weisberger’s approach is likely—I’m willing to say certain—to convince qualified candidates to stand down instead of seek to replace Cardwell. That job would be difficult under ordinary circumstances because she had been a staffer for many years and is IBMA’s institutional memory. But now, knowing the lay of the land and knowing about the confrontations others have had with the chairman, the chances of finding a strong director are lessened, perhaps substantially.

IBMA can still prosper. There are many good, smart members of the board who can move the organization forward. But they need to understand something that Weisberger’s actions have demonstrated that he doesn’t. Dissent is healthy.

So is transparency.

And that’s why, for the good of the organization, for its very future, I think the chairman needs to go.

Not everyone will agree, and that’s fine with me. But no matter how members feel, they should engage on this issue. Contact your constituency rep, or at large members or board officers. You can find contact information for them on IBMA’s web site.

No matter the outcome of this, the board is there to listen to rank-and-file members and work on their behalf. They can only do that if you let them know where you stand.

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About the Author

David Morris

David Morris is a Washington, D.C.-based journalist, songwriter and upright bass player. He has spent much of his career as a wire service political reporter, including nearly 14 years with The Associated Press and a stint as chief White House correspondent for Bloomberg News, and has recently retired as senior editor for Kiplinger Washington Editors.