In the aftermath of a referendum that amounted to a vote of no confidence in Writers Guild of America West exec director Brian Walton, the guild’s board will meet Wednesday in emergency session to decide his fate.
WGAW members last week rejected the terms of a referendum that ostensibly dealt with strategic goals but also included two questions relating to the terms of Walton’s employment contract, which expires in May 2002. If approved, his early termination date would have been extended by one year, although the expiration date would have remained unaffected.
However, since it was the first time an issue directly involving the exec director’s tenure had been presented to the membership for a vote since his appointment 13 years ago, the referendum effectively became a review of Walton’s often controversial term in office.
“It may indeed be that the guild will lose Brian’s services in the wake of the defeat of the referendum,” WGAW president Daniel Petrie Jr. said in a statement. “That’s something about which I would feel huge regret, and something for which I would feel huge responsibility. But should that happen, I hope that the guild and the industry would focus less on that event than on his extraordinary record of service to the guild, and on his exceptional qualities as a lawyer, executive, and as a human being.”
Walton declined requests for an interview.
Before the referendum, Petrie explained to members that, if it were not changed, Walton’s early termination date would fall in the middle of the residuals negotiations that Walton would be heading as the guild’s chief negotiator.
But some guild members contacted by Daily Variety said they were offended by the way the guild hierarchy shoehorned the Walton questions into a referendum that no member in his right mind would have opposed otherwise.
“It was a totally unnecessary referendum, and I wish there had never been one,” said Ann Marcus, one of a minority of board members at odds with the composition of the referendum. “The fact that the membership wasn’t fooled only goes to prove what Abe Lincoln said about not fooling all of the people all of the time.”
Marcus said the membership had been angered by the guild’s “trying to do an end run around them” with regards to Walton’s contract. Board members who support Walton, she said, had “dug their own graves” by setting up the referendum as they did.
Another member, who asked not to be identified, said the vote showed that the guild “tried to pull the wool over our eyes.”
“The board is not in touch with what members want,” said the member, who has been in the guild for 20 years. “It’s sad to see the deterioration of this guild. This referendum was an insult to the membership.”
A WGAW spokeswoman said it was not known whether Walton, who makes $368,000 a year, would be present at Wednesday’s executive session of the 19-member board.
Many members felt the question of Walton’s employment should be referred to a newly configured board later this year, since elections on Sept. 17 could see as many as eight new members voted into office.
“I opposed the referendum because it tried to pervert the natural course of guild business by taking power out of the hands of future boards,” said board member Charles Edward Pogue, who wrote “Dragonheart” and “The Fly.” “The board offered this lollipop of goals, and I think guild members saw this as bold-faced manipulation. It was like, ‘What do they think we are — stupid?’ ”
Walton’s supporters include Bill Schmidt, a TV writer-producer at Barry Diller’s Studios USA who sent about 100 faxes Monday to showrunners around town as part of his “Save Brian Walton” campaign.
“I’ve certainly had my issues with him, but he’s a great executive director,” said Schmidt, a former board member and negotiator. “To lose him now to the reactionaries in the guild who like to strike would be a shame.”