To the Members of VATRA: On June 10, 2017, I was elected Chairman of the 2017 VATRA Convention, as such, it is my moral and institutional obligation to produce the Report on the VATRA 2017 Convention which took place at Manhattan College, Bronx, New York.
Opening of the Convention, Election of the Convention Chairman, Reports and Discussions
In accordance with Amendment 10 Article B of the Charter and By-Laws: The eldest VATRA member nominates the Convention Chairman. The Chairman requests from the Convention two assistants, a secretary, and a reporter, afterward he executes the Convention agenda prepared by the Executive Body.
In compliance with Article B of Amendment 10, Dr. Gjon Buçaj, the eldest VATRA member of the Convention, nominated Mr. Armin Zotaj, current Head of the Washington DC Branch, as Chairman of the 2017 VATRA Convention. In a rare and unusual objection to the abovementioned tradition and before Mr. Zotaj’s candidacy was submitted for a vote according to Convention rules, delegate Mr. Zef Balaj yelled out, “this is a mistake, the Convention Chairman must be elected by votes!” Dr. Buçaj then heard the nomination of another candidate who was proposed by the Head of Michigan Branch, Mr. Mondi Rakaj. He nominated the Head of the Jacksonville Branch, Mr. Adriatik Spahiu for Convention Chairman.
The Convention voted by a show of hands electing Mr. Armin Zotaj as Chairman of the 2017 VATRA Convention by a majority decision. Afterward, the Convention elected Ms. Nazo Veliu as Convention Secretary and Mr. Adriatik Spahiu as Convention Vice-Chairman. The Chairman of the Convention opened the Convention in accordance with the program prepared by the Executive Body as prescribed in Amendment 10 Article B.
In following the Convention agenda, after the American and Albanian national anthems there was a moment of silence for the nation’s fallen heroes and a certificate of appreciation was given to the family of the heroes of Kosova’s recent war, the Bytyçi brothers who were killed by Serbian barbarism. The Convention continued with the President’s Report presented by Dr. Gjon Buçaj on VATRA’s activities over the past two years and at the end of his report, he resigned from his post as President of VATRA. The Convention followed with reports from VATRA Treasurer Mr. Marjan Cubi, Head of VATRA Education Fund Prof. Mithat Gashi, while the VATRA Foundation Inc. was presented by Kaltrina Hoti who represented Dr. Nexhat Kaliçi. Editor Mr. Dalip Greca presented the report on the newspaper Dielli.
The Convention continued with reports by VATRA Branch Heads. The vast majority of Branch Heads did not prepare or submit their reports to the Convention Secretary as protocol dictates. After a lunch break, the Convention resumed with questions and proposals by the delegates regarding the presented reports. During this portion of the Convention, a confrontational situation was observed when Michigan delegate Mr. Alfons Grishaj abruptly interrupted Newburgh delegate Ms. Kaltrina Hoti, who was presenting her proposal for a VATRA cultural center, with the abrasive and intimidating remark that, “she needs to put it to rest, she’s going on so long and no one understands what she’s saying.” Then, Mr. Grishaj requested permission to take the floor at the podium where he spoke about VATRA’s patriotic and historic significance. He also described the qualifications and professional background of Mr. Dritan Mishto. The Convention Chairman immediately interrupted Mr. Grishaj when he began to speak about Mr. Mishto by stating that this was not the portion of the Convention wherein candidates are introduced, but the portion of the Convention wherein questions and proposals are heard regarding the reports which were presented in the previous session.
After a continued debate with Mr. Grishaj, who insisted on finishing his speech, the Convention Chairman requested that Mr. Grishaj speak on the reports or be seated. Mr. Grishaj took his seat. Additionally, during his speech, Mr. Grishaj was interrupted by delegate Cezar Ndreu saying, “it is not right that you should speak so long right after you interrupted the delegate from Newburgh by offending her.” During this session of the Convention, there were questions and discussions by delegate Mr. Besim Malota, Tampa Bay delegate Ms. Zamira Rubejka, and proposals by delegate Mr. Asllan Bushati which were not submitted for a vote. Delegate Frederik Ndoci posed a question on the possibility of having a photograph of Mother Teresa at the Convention as well as more authentic Albanian music.
The Convention Chairman was obligated to interrupt a speech by a Tampa Bay delegate who was speaking at length on abstract themes unassociated with VATRA’s current tangible issues. Election of the President of VATRA The final session of the 2017 VATRA Convention was the election of VATRA’s president. The first step in this session, outlined in the program prepared by the Executive Body, is the election of a commission comprised of three members to verify the delegates’ credentials. The Convention chose Mr. Marjan Cubi, Treasurer with intimate knowledge of membership dues, Ms. Nazo Veliu, Secretary of VATRA and the Convention, and Ms. Zamira Rubejka. The Commission was expanded from three to four members via the proposal of the Michigan Branch.
It must be highlighted that on March 23, 2017, the VATRA Executive Body had sent the following letter to all VATRA Branch Heads: To all the Branch Heads of VATRA! At the Executive Body meeting held on March 22, 2017, several issues were analyzed and decisions were made regarding the positive direction of VATRA, especially the branches. Considering the fact that last year’s Convention was canceled due to a lack of preparation on the part of most branches, and with the aim of preparing for the upcoming June 10, 2017, Convention, it was decided that the leadership of each branch send their complete list of paid memberships no later than April 10, 2017.
Membership lists must contain name, last name, mailing address and telephone number as well as email for those who have one. It is also important that the date of paid membership dues be clearly annotated. As you are fully aware, during the Board of Directors meeting of February 25, 2017, it was decided that the President would travel with the Treasurer to each branch’s city in the lead up to the Convention to greet the branch members and to attend their pre-Convention meetings. The dates of these meetings will be coordinated with each branch so that each Branch Head prepares and gathers all branch members to the meetings.
Furthermore, completed membership lists must be sent to VATRA headquarters no later than April 20, 2017. This timeframe should suffice for any changes or updates that may occur in the weeks and months ahead, regarding the lists that have been requested more than once since last year.
Obviously, this message is meant for the majority of the Branch Heads who have not submitted their membership lists and not intended for those who have submitted their lists on time. Regards and I look forward to seeing you soon, Gjon Buçaj At that time, Branch Heads approached the Commission table to receive the verified number of eligible delegates per Branch.
The Chairman of the Convention visually observed bank checks for payment being made by Branch Heads at the Commission table. Lists of names for delegates should have been submitted by the due date of April 20, 2017. Unfortunately, this was not achieved instead checks were being placed and written directly on the Commission table. Jacksonville Branch Head Adriatik Spahiu said that the list he had in hand was accurate because the check was in the mail or he would pay by check on the spot. This was a violation of Article 34 of the Charter and By-Laws where it states: “Credentials of the Convention Delegates are inspected by the President and the Commission at VATRA’s home office before the Convention begins and are determined to be legitimate or illegitimate. Each unapproved delegate has the right to appeal the denial of credentials to the Convention which has the authority to override the Commission’s decision. The appeal/complaint may be submitted in writing and the unapproved delegate may be invited to the Convention to explain his appeal; but the delegate in not allowed to enter the Convention without authorization; should the delegate enter without authorization, willingly or unaware, he or she will be expelled from membership for violating the rules as an uncivil and disruptive person.”
The Chairman of the Convention is not responsible for or involved with the Commission for Verification of Credentials, however, after visually observing bank checks being passed on the Commission table, the Chairman indicated to the members of the Commission that they should not accept any membership payments because the deadline had already passed. Nonetheless, the Commission of Verification made their decision and 71 voting delegates were approved.
This number includes members of the Executive Body and the Branch Heads. Ms. Nazo Veliu, the member of the Verification Commission, recorded the number of accredited delegates per Branch. After the Verification of delegate credentials for eligibility to vote, the Chairman read aloud the Amendments to the Charter and By-Laws. These amendments were ratified at the previous two Conventions.
As it is well-known after a year of work by the commission with Mr. Bashkim Musabelliu leading the effort for a thorough review of the By-laws, the 2014 VATRA Convention decided against rewriting the Charter and By-Laws but instead to preserve it as is with the addition of approved amendments.
The Chairman of the Convention read aloud Amendment 10 Article D where it underscores: “The Director of the Convention reads the criteria, in accordance with the Charter and By-Laws, that a person must meet in order to be eligible for President of VATRA; Amendment 10 Articles B and C, and instructs the delegates that when making nominations they keep these criteria in mind. The delegate who nominates or the candidate himself must articulate the qualifications of the nominated person.”
The Chairman of the Convention read aloud the criteria and qualifications necessary for one to be a candidate for President of VATRA. These qualifications may be found in the By-Laws under Amendment 11. President of VATRA (Articles 19-22) a. The President of VATRA is elected by the Convention for a two-year term with the right to a second consecutive term, however, a member may not be elected to a third consecutive term. After one or two terms, the same person may be elected President again. b. The person elected President must be a regular member of VATRA for at least five years with experience in the functionality of VATRA with tangible evidence of dedication to serve and respect for the Charter and By-Laws while demonstrating tolerance and respect for differing opinions; the person should be respectable and acceptable to the members and the community by and large. c. The President should have higher education and should have command of at least Albanian and English languages, in the spoken and written word, and an appropriate representative in national and international settings. d. All of VATRA’s organs fall under the President’s authority: The Executive Body, the Board of Directors (the second highest decision making body after the Convention), The Advisory Board, Foundations (VATRA Educational Fund, VATRA Foundation Inc.), property, (VATRA Building) and the newspaper Dielli. The foundations and the newspaper Dielli are managed by individuals tasked by the Executive Body and approved by the Board of Directors who then report and answer to the President and the Executive Body. e. The President and other Officers of the Federation are elected by the Convention and only the Convention can relieve them.
After reading these amendments aloud there were no questions, suggestions, or requests from the delegates or the other two members of the Convention Committee (the secretary and vice-chairman). After reading the criteria for President of VATRA, the Chairman opened the next phase of the Convention:
Nomination of candidates for President. The first candidate nominated was Mr. Dritan Mishto, then Mr. Mithat Gashi, Ms. Merita McCormack and finally Mr. Adriatik Spahiu. The final two candidates, Ms. McCormack and Mr. Spahiu did not accept their nominations. The contest for President of VATRA moved forward with Mr. Gashi and Mr. Mishto. The Chairman asked both candidates if they met the criteria set out in the By-Laws for President of VATRA.
The question was also directed at the Commission for the Verification of Delegate Credentials, to which a response was never given. The Chairman stressed the importance of Article 73: “Every person who becomes a member must commit to upholding the By-Laws without reservation.”
Candidate Mr. Mithat Gashi stated that he had been a member for over 20 years. At that moment, delegate Mr. Alfons Grishaj spoke out in a blistering tone: “candidate Mr. Dritan Mishto satisfies all the criteria, he’s been a member of VATRA for five or six years.” Delegate Grishaj continued to speak for Mr. Mishto in a loud tone declaring that he is fully qualified and does not need to provide proof of registration nor should there be any receipt or registration forms necessary for any member. He also stated that “we allowed a Serbian spy to run for president who was not even a member for three months, there is no question about Mishto.”
The Chairman then turned to the delegates and asked if they would accept Mr. Mishto as a candidate. They affirmed him by a show of hands. The exact number is unknown. The Chairman then allowed each candidate to present their respective platforms at the podium. Mr. Gashi spoke first. He emphasized his commitment to building on VATRA’s growth and prestige concretely through seminars, symposiums, and other events. He also expressed his determination to pressure the Albanian government to officially condemn the communist regime and to make proper restitution for crimes of the state.
Mr. Mishto stated in his address that he would regard Dr. Buçaj as his mentor and seek his counsel on all matters. He declared that delegates traveling from out-of-state would no longer need to pay for their own travel expenses. He criticized that VATRA had not received a sitting president in decades. He promised to listen to all voices within the community.
Next, the Chairman opened the floor to questions for the candidates. After the delegates posed their questions, the Chairman asked a question himself, as a voting delegate of VATRA Convention 2017. The question was: “Mr. Mishto, when did you become a member of VATRA?” The question spurred unruly reactions and outrage but not an answer to the question. Delegate Mr. Zef Balaj reacted harshly and in a threating manner when he rushed to the podium screaming at the Chairman and hurling insults against his character.
Finally, an answer to the Chairman’s question was given by Mr. Grishaj: “Mr. Mishto has been a member for five or six years!” Again, in a loud and aggressive tone, Mr. Grishaj yelled out: “Your mission is over Armin.” The Convention Secretary, Ms. Nazo Veliu, turned to the Chairman saying, “what you are doing Mr. Chairman is not right, on the one hand, you approved Mr. Mishto’s candidacy and on the other, you pose such a question. If you believe that Mr. Mishto’s candidacy does not meet the requirements then you should have suspended this session of the Convention earlier and we, the Convention Committee, should have come with a decision.” Mr. Grishaj cheered “Bravo!”
The Chairman addressed the Secretary, “one cannot talk about what is not right while the By-Laws are being ignored and violated.” Amid the voices of outrage at the Chairman’s question were Mr. Frederik Ndoci and Mr. Kolec Ndoja. Former VATRA Vice-President Mr. Asllan Bushati approached the podium saying, “these amendments are not part of the By-Laws.” The Chairman explained that Mr. Bushati is well-aware that those amendments had been approved over the course of the last two Conventions.
Later, candidate Mr. Gashi took the podium and directed a question plainly to Mr. Mishto: “Have you or have you not been a member for six years?” Mr. Gashi added, “I am troubled with the veracity of Mr. Mishto and Mr. Grishaj’s statements that Mr. Mishto has been a member of the Michigan Branch for six years.” Mr. Gashi closed his remarks stating, “I am troubled by your dishonesty.” Nonetheless, no clear answer was conveyed. Therefore, in an attempt to calm the tumult, Dr. Buçaj took the podium: “While not casting any doubt on the professional qualifications of each candidate, it is important that the election of VATRA’s president, which is historic, cannot be accomplished if there is a shadow of doubt that the By-Laws are not abided. With that, the Convention must first address the matter of length of membership for candidates.”
A group of delegates proposed the change to Amendment 11b regarding the length of time a candidate must have in VATRA to be considered eligible for President. The change was approved by a majority vote. Delegates voted for their candidate in a secret ballot. Mr. Mishto was elected by a vote of 47 out of a possible 71. The Chairman requested that Mr. Mishto present his candidates for Officers in order to be approved by the Convention in accordance with the By-Laws. Mr. Mishto stated he was not prepared to announce his candidates with the exception of Mr. Gashi whom he nominated for Secretary of VATRA. Mr. Gashi responded to the offer, “no thank you.” Mr. Mishto then declared, “The work of the Convention is now closed.”
These a few conclusions that may help VATRA in future Conventions:
1. Amendment 6 of the By-Laws: The Executive Body of VATRA is comprised of 11 officers who are elected by the Convention every two years. The process of electing the remaining ten officers, excluding the elected President, was not carried out at the 2017 VATRA Convention. Without Convention approval members of the Executive Body are deemed invalid and to be operating outside of the Charter and By-Laws.
2. The Board of Directors Amendment 8: The Board of Directors is elected by the Convention and is the highest decision-making body after the Convention. Members of the Board must have been members of VATRA for at least two years and demonstrated a desire to take an active part on the Board. The number of members of the Board of Directors is determined by the Convention and should reflect a 25 to one, regular member to Board Member proportion. Members of VATRA include members belonging to Branches and at large. The 11 officers of the Executive Body are automatically including on the Board of Directors as are the Heads of each Branch. The Board of Directors meets four times a year. If the need arises, the Board meets more frequently. Unfortunately, no motions were made regarding the Board of Directors because the newly elected VATRA President closed the Convention immediately after accepting the results of the vote.
3. Delegate Credentials The process of verifying delegate credentials was not conducted in accordance with the By-Laws. The majority of the Branch Heads disregarded the instructions sent by the Executive Body on March 23, 2017, wherein they were told to submit their lists of paid members with contact information of each branch member. Not only were these actions in violation of Article 34 of the By-Laws, but they also cast doubt on the exact number of members per branch bringing into question the actual number of delegates per Branch.
4. The Comportment of the Delegates Article 67 of the By-Laws: The Convention meeting is conducted in accordance with the American practice of electing a Chairman who has the right to give the floor or refuse the floor and the right to suspend or bar completely disruptive actors from voting and from any other function. If there are any differences, changes or ambiguity, the By-Laws have the final word. During this VATRA Convention, there were numerous instances of behavior unbecoming of a VATRA member including, outbursts, insults, intimidation, and serious aggression especially during the last session of the Convention. It is unfortunate that members of a volunteer organization who have traveled on their one expense to participate in a historic Convention should be subjected to threatening behavior. The behavior of delegates Mr. Zef Balaj and Mr. Alfons Grishaj was completely unacceptable. Should anyone who acts in that manner be allowed to remain a member of a 105-year-old organization with a deep tradition rooted in democracy and civility?
We are reminded of Article 73 of the By-Laws: Everyone who agrees to join VATRA commits to upholding the By-Laws without exception.
5. President or Kryetar? According to the By-Laws, the Albanian word President is not appropriate for referring to the President of VATRA in the Albanian language. The approved Albanian term is Kryetar. It is my hope that this Report of the 2017 VATRA Convention adds value to the continuity of this 105 year old organization founded on the principles of democracy and freedom by two great minds of the Albanian Nation: Fan Noli and Faik Konica.
Armin Zotaj Chairman of the 2017 VATRA Convention – June 16, 2017