The Pendleton Round-Up had a remarkably non-traditional stockholders meeting last week that uncovered a fissure that has been bubbling beneath the surface for at least a few years.
A notoriously insular organization, the Round-Up’s lack of openness throughout those years is part of the reason why the geyser erupted in such a powerful and public way, nearly toppling the board’s pick for president of the 2018 rodeo.
Many readers are interested in the machinations of the board and the root of the disagreement, and this newspaper has tried mightily to get differing viewpoints to talk on the record about reasons for the division. Many have decided not to do so, and that leaves those not in the room — or not in the know — confused. That, we would argue, helps cement the feeling that the Round-Up is a world apart, and not interested in communicating with those outside their club.
But as best as we can understand it, here are few of the disagreements that have divided stockholders:
▪ Most critical is the lack of financial documents being presented at the last couple stockholder meetings.
It’s a legitimate grievance. Interested parties of any organization should demand financial reports in a timely manner, so they can be well-informed on the health of the organization and adjust to changing conditions if necessary.
It did give us a few shivers of remembrance to hear past president Tim Hawkins tell stockholders to “trust the board,” and promise that the Round-Up’s accounting issues were behind them. We (and many area farmers) were told those exact lines just before another prestigious local institution — Pendleton Grain Growers — descended toward bankruptcy and oblivion.
▪ There may also be a deeper division in philosophy. Some on the board believe their job is to fill the stands. They see the rodeo as a cultural event with the same goal it has had from the very beginning — put Pendleton on the map, and bring in visitors and dollars by the wagon load.
Others think the Round-Up board’s job is to organize a rodeo that puts the cowboys first. All the other stuff — the vendors and the memorabilia and the parades and the party on Main Street — to some extent distracts from the action in the arena. Many in that faction are not interested in buying property, or in upgrades or expansion.
These are not mutually exclusive philosophies. Cowboys love to perform at rodeos that pay well, as well as rodeos that have full stands and cultural cachet. Currently the Round-Up has both, and that shows no sign of declining.
▪ Another issue is how the Round-Up appreciates and celebrates long-term volunteers.
In the past, it seemed many who put in decades of volunteer work shoveling manure, pushing on calves or replacing fences were eventually saluted with a position on the board, allowing them to be fêted and have their name remembered in an organization that reveres its history.
But these days, director positions are not figureheads. They are doing important, complex work that often requires complex skills and specific experience. Many directors are business owners or people who manage large events or big organizations in their day jobs.
As the Round-Up professionalizes, it is critical that its board find new ways to thank volunteers who have put in years and years of sweat equity, and not overlook those who may bring a different set of skills to the board.
In general, we think the Round-Up is on the right track. It has been celebrated with national awards, and its grip on the Oregon imagination continues to be strong. We also believe the board is prescient to purchase under-utilized and reasonably-priced property surrounding their own. That’s something any business would do if given the opportunity, as much to protect their current investment as open new revenue streams.
The fissures we mention above are all fixable, but they will require clear communication, as well as a listening ear and an open mind.
We know the board always has a tough task. It is required to marry an important traditional event to changing norms, while considering critical future planning.
To stay on task and move forward, instead of being beset by infighting, the board should move magnanimously into the next year. They should put financial transparency at the forefront, and look for new ways to keep up the old traditions of putting on a great show, celebrating the cowboys who give their all and the volunteers who make it all possible.