Part I An Interview with Beef Board Chairman, Tom Jones
By Leesa Zalesky for Western Ag Reporter
Tom Jones of Pottsville, Arkansas, and Chairman of the Cattlemen’s Beef Board (CBB), graciously agreed to this interview about recent events surrounding the national beef checkoff program as well as CBB’s relationship with the Federation of State Beef Councils and the majority contractor for checkoff funds, the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA). This is something that we at WAR) should’ve done long ago. As events have unfolded, many WAR readers have been in touch with me about the ongoing rumors, innuendos, and confusion surrounding recent events, which the trade media hasn’t exactly been helpful with. You wanted answers, and I went straight to the horse’s mouth for them. The CBB staff and leadership were more than hospitable and transparent about this interview; every question submitted was answered. I would encourage any producer that has any questions at all about the checkoff to contact the CBB office and get your information directly from the people responsible.
The CBB… The CBB, currently consisting of 106 members, is responsible for administering and implementing the national beef checkoff program under the auspices of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).
Q. CBB members are appointed by the Secretary of Agriculture. With that appointment comes some significant responsibilities for the individuals, including neutrality and a commitment to serve the best interests of the overall industry and not their own interests or those of a particular organization they have chosen to belong to. USDA’s new guidelines for commodity checkoff programs emphasize this.
What steps is the CBB taking to ensure that all CBB members understand their roles and responsibilities? A. CBB leadership and staff provide all incoming Beef Board members with detailed information about their roles and responsibilities as Board members. In addition to providing this in written form, this education includes a two-day orientation session following their appointment by the Secretary of Agriculture. It continues with a shorter orientation and swearing in at their first CBB Update Session during the annual cattle industry convention. During the swearing in of new Board members, all existing and ongoing members are asked to repeat their oath of office, as well. A USDA representative also reminds each of the producers of the expectation that they act on behalf of the entire industry, and not to make decisions based on personal interest or special interest of other organizations, industry segments, or geographic interests. USDA also asks all Beef Board members to sign conflict-of-interest forms at the beginning of their terms and asks them to excuse themselves from voting on issues where they might have a conflict of interest. To formalize the process by which CBB communicates the expectation for all Board members to act in the best interest of the entire industry, CBB members will be asked during the upcoming summer conference to approve a new policy requiring them to sign a conflict-of-interest disclosure form annually.
Q. There was a recent meeting between leadership of the CBB and NCBA to try to “iron out differences.” The meeting was not publicized ahead of time and appeared to be cloaked in secrecy. However, news of the meeting leaked anyway. As a federal program, the beef checkoff is subject to public exposure, and I think it’s safe to say that a lack of transparency is what frustrates cattle producers the most. Explain why this meeting wasn’t publicized before it happened so that, if a checkoff-paying producer or a representative of another beef producer organization wanted to sit in and listen or perhaps give input, he/she would have been able to do that.
A. The meeting was not “cloaked in secrecy.” All members of the Beef Board, the Federation of State Beef Councils, and NCBA were informed about the meeting before it occurred, but the goal was to have a productive discussion among CBB and NCBA producer leaders only, including discussion of some confidential personnel matters, and personnel matters are always confidential by law. Therefore, the discussions were conducted in a private session of leadership.
That said, there will be an open and public discussion of the Beef Board’s specific roles and responsibilities that has been both publicly announced and scheduled so that members of other beef organizations and producers will be able to attend. That will occur at the CBB Update Session during the 2011 cattle industry’s summer conference in Orlando during the first week of August.
In addition, national beef industry organizations and qualified (those beef councils recognized by USDA) State Beef Councils have been asked, via emailed invitation last week, to provide comments and suggestions in response to the changes recommended by the CBB Executive Committee, with a deadline of early July. Those comments will be forwarded to Beef Board members for their consideration prior to the August meeting.
Q. Were any USDA officials present at the “private session of leadership” meeting? If not, why not?
A. USDA officials were aware of the meeting but were not in attendance. There was no official action expected or taken during that meeting, so there was no need for USDA officials to attend. Obviously, anything that would develop from that meeting that would involve a vote would include USDA’s participation and ratification.
Q. Is there an official transcript of the meeting, and if so, will it be released? If NO on either count, why won’t a reporting of some sort, i.e. an honest assessment of the events from the CBB’s perspective, be made available for those who pay the checkoff?
A. There is no transcript from the meeting because the meeting was not official business of the Beef Board. CBB leadership’s perspective of the discussions was announced in the May 6 release (see sidebar).
Q. Have you been interviewed by BEEF Magazine regarding the Denver meeting between CBB leadership and NCBA (discussed in last week’s front-page article)? How do you respond to that publication’s allegation, written by Troy Marshall, that you “were telling people immediately after the meeting that nothing had changed” and that your “campaign would not stop.” Were representatives of BEEF Magazine at the meeting?
A: No one from CBB leadership has been interviewed by BEEF Magazine regarding the recent meeting between CBB and NCBA leadership. I would welcome the opportunity to talk with Mr. Marshall about CBB’s responsibilities, and I would explain to Mr. Marshall that I am not on a “campaign” and that I did not make the comment he said I made. What I have said is that CBB members need to discuss the Board’s responsibilities and to decide the Board’s structure during the summer conference as CBB’s leadership will not and cannot make that important decision for the Board. As far as the meeting with NCBA leadership is concerned, only CBB and NCBA producer leaders were in that meeting.
Q. Press releases about the CBB-NCBA leadership meeting indicate that the CBB has agreed to “develop” a new Joint Committee Agreement with NCBA and that the process will begin at the summer meeting. Why would the Executive Committee (EC) agree to this without taking it to the full board for approval but would not press forward with implementing the recommendations of the Roles and Responsibilities Committee without taking it to the full board? The same press releases say that the CBB and NCBA have been operating under the “old” agreement since it expired. Yet, in CBB’s justifications for its recommended changes to its Roles and Responsibilities, CBB is very clear that the “old” agreement was terminated. So, which is it?
A. The press release about the meeting indicated that CBB would develop a new joint agreement with NCBA, but we won’t know what that agreement will entail until the Beef Board discusses and votes on the CBB Executive Committee’s recommendations for changes in the Board’s procedures. The joint committee coordination agreement between CBB and NCBA needed to be revised. The CBB Executive Committee decided to terminate that agreement because NCBA would not engage in renegotiation discussions with CBB until after the Federation structure was finalized and due to the agreement requiring termination notice of at least six months prior to the January anniversary date of the agreement. Since major changes in the Board’s structure require Board approval, it is logical to continue operating within the joint committee structure until the full Beef Board determines the manner in which its operations best fulfill its fiduciary responsibilities.
Everyone should keep in mind that this verbal agreement with NCBA to operate within the joint committee structure can be terminated immediately after the Board determines its committee structure, whereas the written agreement would only allow termination each January with six months’ prior notice. This manner of operating gives the Board the flexibility it needs to allow CBB members to participate in the committee processes until the Board’s structure is approved. Then the Board can immediately begin to implement any changes approved by the Board.
Q. Why would the CBB Executive Committee agree to a new Joint Committee Agreement with just NCBA and not bring all beef producer organizations and checkoff payers into the process and make committee seats available to all?
A. As I indicated in my answer to question #6, CBB did not agree to a joint committee structure with NCBA. CBB will wait until the Board determines its structure and will then negotiate a new agreement with NCBA and possibly other industry organizations based on the approved structure. CBB leadership has requested input from other industry organizations and will meet with other organizations prior to the summer conference if those organizations want to meet. The Beef Board session at this summer’s meeting will also be open to ALL producers who wish to provide the input you describe.
Q. Where did the press releases about the CBB-NCBA meeting originate? Since the role in the checkoff of the CBB is unique and different from all other organizations, why doesn’t the CBB issue a separate press release to producers detailing CBB’s assessment of the outcome of this meeting?
A. The details of the meeting were provided through the leaders who attended it, and those producers agreed to the content of a statement for release to summarize the outcomes of the meeting. That is why the statements released by NCBA and CBB were so similar, but CBB did issue a separate press release.
To be continued…