Watching the Wheels July 2024

Silent Majority

How can we better facilitate member engagement?

by Mike Tanner, USTA Executive Vice President and CEO

My colleague TC Lane’s column “Thankful For Our 60,” which appeared in the May edition of this magazine, touched upon the USTA’s district meeting format. TC correctly pointed out that just 1.2 percent of USTA members attended their district meeting during the 2023-’24 cycle. Even moving the decimal point one spot to the right would signal a structure that isn’t working, and at an annual combined cost of more than $40,000, the district meetings are not cost-effective.

Something has to change.

The scheduling of the district meetings is governed by a decades-old USTA bylaw, specifically §3.01, which stipulates that “there shall be held within each district . . . an annual meeting of the membership between the first day of October and the first day of the February following.” The bylaw also mandates that the place and time of the meetings must be filed with the USTA offices no later than July 15, and that USTA staff must communicate that information to the districts at least one month before each respective session.

Strangely enough—or at least peculiar to me—the bylaw goes on to direct what the order of business shall be. It includes officer reports, committee reports, the report of the election committee, miscellaneous business, and even making sure that the notice of the meeting has been recorded. Here’s what it doesn’t include: any mention of discussing and voting upon rule change proposals. And yet that’s the agenda item that, without exception, dominates 95 percent of the meetings.

I’ve often thought that the in-person rule change proposal debates—while facilitative and occasionally entertaining—lend themselves a little too closely to the Iowa presidential caucuses, only without the binding votes. Larger personalities tend to carry the argument, hometown proposals usually get more favorable treatment, and not enough people turn out anymore, meaning that those who do have an outsized influence upon the final tallies. (Aside: If there’s a horsepeople’s awards dinner attached to a district meeting, attendance jumps up. Feed them and they will come.)

I don’t think it has to be this way. In 2022, the USTA created a national election day, the second Tuesday of December, in which every district director up for reelection, no matter the district, is on the ballot.

Why not conduct voting on the rule change proposals on the same date? This could be done electronically via a secure platform which members could access through their USTA Member Accounts via Pathway. In advance of the voting deadline, the USTA would post online a video preview of the rule change menu, with each proposal detailed in a simple, easy-to-understand manner. Sponsor statements would be included, along with the operational issues, if any, to be considered should the proposal be approved. A Facebook Live-type town hall forum could perhaps be scheduled a few weeks in advance of election day, which could promote dialogue among members, directors and staff.


At this point, I think I need to tell you something, and it is this: I hate Zoom meetings. In-person get-togethers are, in my opinion, so much more productive and personal. But the numbers don’t lie, and, as society has become more insular and dependent upon electronic communications, the day and age for in-person district meetings is about 40 years in the rear view—and it’s not coming back. So, let’s figure out a way to make it work for us.

At the conclusion of the USTA Board of Directors meeting in March, President Russell Williams assigned an ad hoc committee to investigate ways to improve participation and attendance at the district meetings. District 2 director Marilyn Breuer-Bertera and USTA secretary Michele Kopiec are spearheading that effort, and I look forward to hearing what they discover and recommend. Me, I’m open to just about anything that will incentivize horsepeople, whose lives are plenty busy as it is, to engage more with the association.

The flip side is also true. During the pandemic, we conducted every district meeting virtually, and participation still lagged. What can the board and the USTA staff do differently to engage members? Because what we’re doing now isn’t enough.

Pulling the rule change proposals out of the district meetings will leave a vacuum. I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing, though, and it surely would provide an opportunity to reimagine what district meetings might look like and when they should take place. How about a summer series of meet-ups on big race days at the pari-mutuel racetracks and a strategically chosen schedule of fairs? What about doing something similar at the sales in the fall?

It might require a bylaw change, but it won’t take a miracle. Have any ideas? Send them to me at, and I’ll share them with Marilyn and Michele.

And, by the way, welcome to summer. Good luck, and good racing!


Mike Tanner


The views contained in this column are those of the author alone, and do not necessarily represent the opinions or views of the USTA. To comment on this column, email us at


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