Imagine an online encyclopedia anyone can edit — and no one can run. With the calendar running out on 2008, Jimmy Wales, Wikipedia's sleaze-drenched cofounder, nearly lost his seat on the board. Who's in charge here?

Wales's term was set to expire on December 31, along with two other trustees. The board of the Wikimedia Foundation, Wikipedia's parent organization, is supposed to have 10 board members, half appointed and half elected. It currently has two elected members — Kat Walsh, a Virginia law student, and Ting Chen, a gay Chinese programmer working for IBM in Germany — and two temporary appointees. According to the foundation's bylaws, it requires a quorum — at least five trustees — to take any action other than appointing new members. On December 28, with days left to go, the board announced the reappointment of the three expiring board members on an obscure mailing list — a move that the board's chair, Michael Snow, only saw fit to make public on the foundation website's nearly a week later (after the publication of an earlier version of this post, and followup reporting by CNET News). Five of the ten board seats remain empty or filled by seatwarmers.

How did Wales come to this embarrassing pass? The former porn merchant and options trader, who has traded sex and money for his help in getting Wikipedia entries edited, has met his Machiavellian match, in the form of Sue Gardner, a Gothy, spider-tattooed Canadian pop-culture expert who now runs the site he helped start as Wikimedia's executive director.

Incompetence and infighting are endemic to nonprofits, of course. But Wikipedia's bureaucracy is distinctly, fearsomely awful. The site, which dictates the online reputation of countless living people and companies, itself operates by rules that are completely incomprehensible, determined by a self-appointed group of volunteer editors who can seldom stop arguing over obscurities to explain their ways to outsiders.

No one should be surprised, then, that Wikipedia's overseers are so hobbled that they can't even fill vacancies on the board — a situation Gardner has exploited expertly.

The Wikimedia Foundation is celebrating the fact that it has just badgered Wikipedia users with a sitewide telethon — featuring Wales — into filling its $6.1 million budget. Donors have just handed a blank check to Gardner.

She has a cushy job: The former Canadian journalist has $6 million to spend, with no functional supervision. And Gardner managed to get herself on the board's nominating committee, so she gets to pick her own bosses — a conflict of interest so ridiculous it beggars the imagination.

Wikipedia is now running ads thanking Wales for his help with Wikipedia's fundraising. Wales has held onto his special "community founder" board seat all his own, now that the board has gotten around to reappointing him — but the move required Gardner's consent.

(Photo of Wales via Wikipedia Commons; photo of Gardner via Seattle Times)