September 22, 2006

Recall proposal puts Debian leader in dunc-tank

Author: Bruce Byfield

Debian Project Leader (DPL) Anthony Towns may face a recall vote over his involvement with Dunc-Tank, a non-official group that proposes to collect donations to pay Debian release managers to ensure that Debian etch is in early December as scheduled.

The resolution, and its legality under Debian's Constitution, were still being debated while this article was written, but, if successful, it could very well put obstacles in the way of the next release that are far more insurmountable than the number of outstanding critical bugs.

Under the Debian Constitution, "any individual developer may propose or sponsor draft General Resolutions," and it states that developers together "may appoint or recall the Project Leader." Like any general resolution, the draft resolution must be sponsored or seconded by a minimum of ten developers. Developers may also propose related counter-resolutions. When no further resolutions are forthcoming, the Debian secretary prepares the wording for a ballot and a public vote is held after two to three weeks of further discussion.

The recall proposal was introduced by Denis Barbier. Barbier's immediate motivation is the fact that, although the news release that announces Dunc-Tank clearly describe the group as "an independent group of developers, users and supporters of Debian," Town's position makes the distinction between Dunc-Tank and Debian unclear. As proof, Barbier notes that at least one media report from Australia fails to observe the distinction. "We Debian developers can make this confusion vanish . . . by recalling our Project Leader," Barbier writes.

Although Barbier does not elaborate, the implication seems to be that, by participating in Dunc-Tank, Towns has violated the Debian Constitution, which states that "The Project Leader should attempt to make decisions which are consistent with the consensus of the opinion of developers." The idea of paying developers has apparently been discussed for some time on debian-private, the mailing list reserved for Debian developers, but, according to Pierre Habouzit, "we were very far from a consensus."

In other words, Towns is making a private decision that, because of his position, will be mistaken for an official decision. "This whole thing is a fraud, and it's even less tolerable that it comes from people that are abusing their celebrity to endorse and support such initiatives. The letter and the spirit of the Constitution has been flouted," Habouzit writes, although he later adds that he would withdraw his support for Barbier's general resolution if Towns withdraws from Dunc-Tank.

Conflicts over policy and personality may also motivate some supporters of the resolution. Referring to Town's term of office, which began last spring, Sven Luther writes that the announcement of Dunc-Tank "is in line with what has been happening in Debian recently anyway. Remember our DPL made noise about censoring the mailing list and expulsing people from them in the electoral campaign?"

In a surprise move, Towns himself has seconded Barbier's resolution. "I do think it's a fair question," Towns says, and "I don't personally have any problem with being recalled if that's what the project thinks is right and proper."

Towns adds that, if recalled, he would continue his involvement with Debian. "I'm not remotely interested in quitting," he says, adding, "I'm very grateful that people, who otherwise disagree with me, seem to trust my integrity and Debian's processes enough to be able to act according to their beliefs, and not forced to inaction out of fear."


Opposition to the general resolution seems at least as strong as the support. John Goerzen wrote, "I am shocked at the support that this [resolution] is seeing, and I wonder if people are letting their feelings about this particular project cloud their judgement about recalling a DPL? Remember what we are saying here -- that because some Australian publication got some facts wrong, we need to recall the DPL."

In the same vein, Stephen Gran asks, "So, just to be clear, you want to punish a Debian developer for their activities outside of Debian? Now that we're in crazy-as-batshit land, who do you want to bring up on charges next?"

Loïc Minier also jumped to Town's defense. "Anthony [Towns] did his best to handle this cleanly and openly from the very start," Minier writes, adding that Towns "is pursing this project because he thinks this is for the good of Debian. Isn't that what being the DPL is all about?"

In another message, Minier went on to propose a second general resolution that reads, "The Debian Project does not object to the experiment named 'Dunc-Tank', lead by Anthony Towns, the current DPL, and Steve McIntyre, the Second in Charge. However, this particular experiment is not the result of a decision of the Debian Project. The Debian Project wishes success to projects funding Debian or helping towards the release of Etch."

A third proposal was made by Sven Luther to postpone all general resolutions until one week after the next release of Debian in the hope "that tempers will have calmed [by] then."

However, Debian Secretary Manoj Srivastava points out that Luther's resolution contradicts the Debian Constitution's statement about how general resolutions are conducted. Thus, it would have to pass with a three to one majority over other resolutions, a ruling that makes it unlikely to receive sufficient sponsors, or to succeed if it is sponsored.

The uncertain outcome

Whether any resolution will come to a vote is uncertain. So far, Barbier's and Minier's resolutions seem to have received roughly an equal number of sponsors, but neither has received sufficient support to go to vote. The resolution to delay has yet to receive a sponsor.

Moreover, on the IRC channel for Software in the Public Interest, the non-profit organization that is the legal arm of Debian, Goerzen expressed doubts that Barbier's proposal was structured correctly. If that is true, then another recall resolution would have to be proposed -- and if Debian developers have time for second thoughts, that effort might never be made.

As Michael Banck points out, no guarantee exists that the prominent developers in Dunc-Tank would continue to hold their offices in Debian if Towns was recalled.

Moreover, as Towns was careful to remind the Debian community while seconding his own recall, a successful recall would lead to a new election for project leader, right at the time that Debian struggles to produce a timely release.

During that time, the responsibilities of project leader would be shared by Srivastava as secretary and Bdale Garbee, the chair of the technical committee, which -- despite the decentralized structure of Debian -- could slow any decisions that had to be made. "Assuming this resolution passed and we released on time, we'd be doing so without a DPL," Towns observes, trailing off in an ellipse that is possibly meant to be ominous.

Nor, as Banck points out, is there any guarantee that the prominent developers in Dunc-Tank would continue to hold their offices in Debian if Towns was recalled.

Still, even if Towns intends a veiled warning, Debian developers might want to consider his points, regardless of the motivation behind the resolution to recall him. At best, a resolution would be a distraction at a critical time. At worst, Debian's democratic processes might very well hamstring the project at exactly the time when the need to cooperate is greatest.

Bruce Byfield is a course designer and instructor, and a computer journalist who writes regularly for NewsForge,, and IT Manager's Journal.