December 2003

‘Sunlight Is the Best Disinfectant’

Sunlight is the best disinfectant,” a well-known quote from U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, refers to the benefits of openness and transparency. I invoke this quote often as executive director of the NYSSCPA, to illustrate that the most credible and respected organizations operate in an atmosphere of avowed openness. We should not only accept criticism and suggestions, we should embrace them. If questions from constituents, the public, or the media make leaders or other responsible parties obfuscate, the questions are usually valid and the answers are not. People who feel uncomfortable under the bright light of scrutiny and criticism often have something to hide.

A high level of openness is an identifying characteristic of democracy, and I’m proud that the NYSSCPA continues to take strides forward in this direction. For example, in 2002, the NYSSCPA approved six new chapters, which expanded our Board of Directors from 36 to 42 members and gave approximately 5,000 NYSSCPA members a more direct voice in the Society’s affairs.

More examples of increased openness were enacted through bylaw changes that the Society’s membership approved this past July. For instance, prior bylaws contemplated a Nominating Committee in which two members (23%) were designated by the Board and seven members (77% ) were proposed by the membership-at-large via a petition signed by 10 CPA members. Members were not prohibited from signing more than one petition, meaning that as few as 10 members could control the nominating process by “stuffing the ballot box.”

Other recent bylaw amendments added two additional member-designated nominating committee members (82% of the committee), and prohibited members from signing more than one petition. Therefore, it would require at least 60 individuals to fill the Nominating Committee through petitions.

If too few members seek to serve on the Nominating Committee (that is, if not enough petitions are received), the Board fills the vacancies with non-Board members, as it was called on to do earlier this year. This is another lesson in democracy: If members don’t exercise their right to define new leadership of the Society, existing leadership will fill the vacuum, a less democratic approach.

The NYSSCPA encourages greater openness elsewhere in the profession. In 2002, an NYSSCPA resolution to recommend reviewing and improving the AICPA governance structure received strong support from NYSSCPA members. Although the NYSSCPA resolution was tabled, shortly thereafter AICPA Chairman William Ezzell created a special task force to review the AICPA’s governing body, and the end result of that task force’s work is a step in the right direction.

Another example of the NYSSCPA itself striving for greater openness is how it fills New York vacancies on AICPA Council, the Institute’s governing body. The NYSSCPA is permitted to recommend nine individuals to serve three-year terms on Council and can insist on an additional individual who serves a one-year term. Last year, President JoAnn Golden had the Executive Committee decide, changing the tradition of this decision being made by the president alone. This year, after soliciting nominations from the full membership and receiving more than 80 responses, Jeff Hoops involved the entire 42-person Board in deciding who would serve on council.

Other examples of the Society’s openness are its consolidated financial statements, which are published annually in The Trusted Professional. They are also posted online at www.nysscpa.org, as are the minutes of the meetings of our Board of Directors and Executive and Audit Committees. The Society’s annual Form 990 tax returns are posted online as well, which is more than the IRS requires in the way of making them available for public inspection.

The Society recognizes that democratic leadership requires more than effective committees, publications, websites, and e-mail updates. During the last few years, coinciding with our launching of the new chapters, we’ve used officers visits to chapter meetings to dialogue with members on a direct level. We started including free CPE sessions at many of these meetings as an incentive for people to attend, but what we want most of all is for people to come and talk. We want members to tell us what’s going on in their area and what they think about the bigger picture, and we want them to hear the NYSSCPA officers talk about the Society’s work and plans. We seem to be succeeding. The total number of attendees at the chapters’ officers visits has roughly tripled over the last three years. A recent meeting of the Manhattan/Bronx Chapter had more than 350 people, rivaling the turnout at even our best-attended conferences.

The foregoing requires work and dedication, but maintaining a high level of openness is the only way the Society can operate—and the way that businesses should operate as well. The leadership neither expects nor wants complacent acceptance by the members of everything said or done on their behalf. We fully welcome any question or discussion that helps ensure that the Society is governed out in the open, with sunlight to spare.

Louis Grumet
Publisher, The CPA Journal
Executive Director, NYSSCPA
lgrumet@nysscpa.org


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