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Jimmy Wales holds a special role in the governance of the English Wikipedia, due to the central and vital stake he had in its founding. This authority is used on an ad hoc basis: it is exercised when other decision-making structures are inadequate or have failed in a particular situation. As a general principle, Wales has been unwilling to act in contravention of community consensus or a decision made by the Arbitration Committee.
Wales's role on Wikipedia is continually changing. In the earliest days of Wikipedia, Wales was the sole person able to ban editors from the site. In recent years, his direct involvement in the running of the site has decreased considerably.
Wales has, in the past, instructed Wikimedia's system administrators to implement software changes that constitute de facto Wikipedia policy changes. For instance, in December 2005, in response to the Seigenthaler incident, Wales removed the ability of unregistered users to create new pages on the English-language Wikipedia. This change was proposed as an "experiment", but has been in place ever since.
In Ted Kennedy and Robert Byrd articles, Wales wrote an open letter to the Wikimedia Foundation, calling for the flagged revisions software feature to be activated. Wales has solicited community input on this issue, and has apparently not yet formally submitted the request to the Board., in response to criticism over inaccurate information added to Wikipedia's
Across the year, he maintains a very active talk page, more watched than the village pumps, which he uses as a noticeboard to publish his occasional "decrees" or announcements and where he facilitates discussion on all sorts of Wikimedia projects matters that he welcomes (from the broadest to the most specific; relating to Wikipedias in all languages, Wikimedia, Commons etc.); the latter often include appropriate notification of current or future discussions on the English Wikipedia or elsewhere to solicit more participation from the talk page's followers.
On 6 February 2006 Jimmy Wales was granted the 'steward' right on English Wikipedia by Danny, and was granted the 'steward' right on Meta by Sj. In 2009, a 'founder' flag was established for Jimmy, replacing his steward rights.
The founder user group, to which only Jimmy Wales belongs, gives him a specific set of user rights on all projects including: abuse filter editing, searching and viewing deleted and suppressed revisions, and creating accounts. The rights associated with this flag were once much more extensive, including all administrative rights and user right editing, but were dramatically reduced in May 2010 following an incident where he deleted files at Wikimedia Commons without seeking consensus. However, as an English Wikipedia administrator, he retains the same rights as administrators on this project. He also has checkuser and oversight rights. Though he is not a bureaucrat, his local founder user group allows him to add and remove all usergroups, which exceeds the permissions available to bureaucrats.
In June 2003, the Wikimedia Foundation (WMF) was founded as "Wikimedia Foundation, Inc., a nonprofit corporation organized under the laws of Florida, United States." The foundation's governance is a board of trustees, that in 2003 initially comprised of Jimmy Wales as Chair, Michael Davis (Mdavis) and Tim Shell (TimShell). Wales kept the position as Chair until October 2006, when it was changed to the role as "Chairman Emeritus".
Since 2008, Jimmy Wales is (additionally to the Chairman Emeritus) granted the "Founder's seat" on the Wikimedia Foundation Board of Trustees, the ultimate corporate authority of the Wikimedia Foundation. Although Wales founded Wikipedia together with Larry Sanger, there is only one Founder's seat on the board. The creation of the founder seat position came among controversies over the appropriate representation of volunteers and chapters within the WMF governance.
The members of the Arbitration Committee were originally appointed by Wales. He retains the authority to overrule or dissolve the Committee; when the Committee was founded in 2004, he said that he expected to exercise this right "basically never". In , Wales once again asserted his intention to overrule the Committee if he deems it necessary, but added that he did not expect that would ever come about. This was in tension with a previous statement by Wales made in April 2007:
Here, let me by decree in this very instant make the following binding pledge upon myself:
In the event that the ArbCom makes a ruling against me, overturning any decision I have made in my traditional capacity within Wikipedia, the ArbCom's decision shall be final.
In January 2009, Wales stated that he did have the constitutional authority to remove sitting arbitrator FT2. Upon the arbitrator's resignation, the Committee declared that whether or not FT2 was to be replaced was a decision for Wales. That same month, the Committee restricted its official mailing list to "sitting arbitrators, the designated mailing list coordinator, and Jimbo Wales"; the position of designated mailing list coordinator was subsequently discarded, making Wales the only non-arbitrator privy to the list.
In July 2009, the Committee announced that it had convened with Wales' endorsement an Advisory Council on Project Development. A storm of protest from the editing community over the initiative led to its abandonment and the resignation of the arbitrator primarily responsible.
In December 2013, arbitrator-elect 28bytes resigned amidst a controversy over his status as a Wikipediocracy admin. Citing 28bytes's overwhelming support in the just-concluded election, Wales offered to exercise his reserve powers over ArbCom for the first time ever and call a special election to reconfirm 28bytes to his post. 28bytes, however, declined the offer, and no election was held.
In December 2017, upon the conclusion of the 2017 Arbitration Committee Election, Wales confirmed that he no longer needs to appoint members of the Arbitration Committee and that the established community process is sufficient for their election.
In June 2009, Wales confirmed:
In case of my untimely death or inability to perform my capacities, the ArbCom is hereby authorized to figure out what to do, subject to ratification with a 50% + 1 vote of the community. In the interim between them coming up with a ratified proposal, the status quo is to be considered as much as possible. I will amend this succession plan from time to time upon the recommendation of the ArbCom and Community, until such time as we figure out a more long-term and binding way of dealing with it.
The original members of the Mediation Committee were appointed by Wales in December 2003, at the same time as the original Arbitrators were selected. Since these original appointments, no further selections have been made; rather, editors who wish to join the MedCom file an application to join, which is then discussed by the Committee's existing members. The Chair of the Committee then closes the discussion as directed by the consensus of the Committee.
All nominations are subject to the final approval of Wales, although he rarely comments on nominations and has never overturned a consensus of the Committee. Jimbo continues to hold a subscription to the private mailing list of the Mediation Committee, Mediation-en-l.
As an administrator on the English Wikipedia, Wales has the technical ability to block editors. However, in August 2009 he decided to permanently renounce these powers. In May 2010 he used them again. On 21 September 2011 he unblocked an IP "Limited unblock for purpose of participating on my talk page only".
Wales has the technical ability, through the unique permissions flag of "founder", to add and remove all user rights. Wales has not invoked this power often, and his most recent removal of admin rights in 2008 provoked varying amounts of controversy. The question of whether the English Wikipedia community can remove Wales' administrator status has not yet arisen.