Nominet members have voted for further reform of the troubled dot-UK registry by electing to the board the man who effectively ousted its CEO and chairman.
Simon Blackler led the successful PublicBenefit.uk campaign earlier this year that resulted in chief exec Russell Haworth and board chairman Mark Wood exiting the registry operator.
Two non-executive board seats were put to a member vote this month, and on Tuesday it was revealed Blackler received just over 50 per cent of votes in the first-preference stage, winning immediate election to Nominet's board of directors.
The two other candidates that Blackler supported came a clear second and third, with Ashley La Bolle of registrar Tucows ultimately taking 35 per cent of the vote, and former Nominet director Jim Davies, who resigned in 2009 after his efforts at reform were stymied, winning 16 per cent of the vote. Turnout was 24 per cent.
Blackler and La Bolle will replace non-exec board members James Bladel, GoDaddy's veep of policy who decided not to stand again after his three-year term ran out; and domain-name industry veteran David Thornton, who did stand for reelection and lost.
That defeat is telling: Thornton not only defended the previous management’s actions but argued that the successful campaign to oust them was not truly indicative of the Nominet membership’s feelings. Thornton received just six per cent of the final vote.
Also standing was Liz Williams who received nine per cent of the vote, and Nominet member Stephen Yarrow who received one per cent.
The end result is Nominet’s current board and senior management, who still remain in charge of the organisation despite what amounts to a vote of no confidence in them, have been put on notice.
Both Blackler and La Bolle have made it plain they expect reform efforts to continue at Nominet, making it harder in future for the organisation’s staff to spend the profit made from Nominet’s lucrative monopoly on .uk domains on commercial projects unrelated to its core registry business.
Nice work if you could get it
Compensation for staff and directors is also expected to be cut back after double-digit annual growth of pay packages under Haworth. Nominet’s convoluted voting system that gives large members, typically public companies not based in the UK, greater voting rights and an effective veto will also face scrutiny.
It is a significant turnaround in just a year. Despite Nominet being a not-for-profit member-based affair, Haworth redefined the organisation as a “profit for purpose” company and spent tens of millions of pounds attempting to enter commercial markets while paying himself and his executive team large salaries and bonuses for doing so.
Nominet refuses to consider complaint about its own behaviour, claims CEO didn’t mean what he said on cameraFROM THE ARCHIVE
Each of those efforts failed, with the losses obscured from Nominet’s members through opaque accounting, claims of commercial confidentiality, and a decision to end the long-held practice of publishing board minutes. Eventually, however, events caught up with Haworth. The final straw came when he dramatically deleted Nominet members’ online forum during the registry's annual meeting after it was used to raise questions and demand answers about what their money was being spent on.
Despite the successful member campaign to reject Haworth’s approach, many of those who developed and backed the CEO's strategies are still at the organisation, either on the board or in senior management.
Both Nominet COO Eleanor Bradley and CFO Ben Hill were removed from Nominet’s board along with Haworth and Wood by the member vote earlier this year, yet continue to work for the company. Bradley was even named interim CEO, sparking further protest from unhappy members.
Turning the page?
Nominet has also formally asked members to approve the reappointment of Stephen Page as an “appointed director,” a role some say was specifically created to give the executive team control of the board over and above members’ interests.
Blackler has urged Nominet members to deny that resolution, claiming Page, for one thing, played a key role in increasing salaries and bonuses. Former Nominet director Jim Davies also called for members to push Page off the board.
In a letter to Nominet chairman Andy Green last week, Davies claimed the board not only gave Haworth a £300,000 severance package – including, according to Nominet's public accounts, a £120,000 loss-of-office payment – it also waived its right to remove him as CEO immediately without pay if he were voted off the board of directors by members.
This latter offer to Haworth, according to Davies, was signed by Nominet directors Rob Binns and Page on behalf of the board. According to what Davies said is the private agreement approved by Binns, Page, and Haworth, Nominet made this commitment to provide the CEO "some certainty as to your immediate employment status" should the member vote go against him.
In the end, Haworth quit as chief exec the night before the membership voted to cut him from the board. Davies has called for an independent investigation after questioning the board's decision to waive its rights.
The members’ decision on whether to vote Page off the board is expected to be announced later this week at Nominet’s annual general meeting. Given the continued show of support for Blackler and his campaign for an overhaul of the dot-uk registry operator, it seems likely Page, seen as a holdover from the Haworth years, will lose the resolution and be required to step down.
Just as importantly, there was the removal of non-exec director David Thornton, who earlier this year floated the idea of transforming Nominet into a for-profit org that distributed shares among its members.
During his reelection campaign, he called for "some modernization" of Nominet's governance, changes to the board structure, and public benefit contributions to continue "at a realistic percentage of revenue." In the end, the membership voted to drop him, seemingly in a drive to root out those who presided over Nominet while its decisions and closeness to its largest members were under fire from critics.
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As for the other elected non-exec director, Ashley La Bolle is a director of domains at registrar Tucows, the largest company to support the Nominet members’ resolution in March to eject the CEO and chairman.
In her election statement, La Bolle made it plain she seeks further reform of Nominet, noting that her “primary reason for running to become a member-elected non-executive director is to continue driving this change forward and to cement Nominet’s commitment to its public benefit mission.”
She also spoke of "essential values" of "transparency in decision-making, authentic and open communication, and building a culture of listening and respect," a clear criticism of the previous efforts to stifle member concerns.
Nominet’s annual general meeting will take place this Thursday, November 18. ®