Categorized | OPINION

Five Myths about NENA’s Official Statements

Posted on 19 December 2014 by robwas66


Doug Walters

Editor’s note: This is a statement released to the Messenger by former NENA Associate Director Doug Walters

It’s time to pull the Board’s official statement on staff firings. It has been on the website for nearly two months. It has shaped the same faulty logic from their lawyer, and now from the head of the City’s NCR department. But no matter how many times they repeat their chorus, it is still wrong.

From the official statement: “The Nokomis East Neighborhood Association (NENA) is making a change in administrative leadership because, despite significant effort over several months, the Board has been unable to rebuild and maintain a positive working relationship with existing staff. The Board has regretfully concluded that a change in NENA’s day-to-day management was necessary.”

Myth #1: That NENA needed a change in “administrative leadership.” Arguably, administration was not the problem; NENA was in good financial condition, had strengthened community partnerships and was poised to grow when the firings occurred. More accurately, it was the firing of all executive staff of which admin was just a part of their duties. This wasn’t just a change in day-to-day management, no matter how they spin it. In one fell swoop, they eliminated all of the company’s operations, from human resources, to fundraising, communications, program management, accounting and much more. That is called a “poison pill” in corporate speak.

Myth #2: The Board made significant effort to repair the declining relationship with staff. Contrary to the implications in Director Jelatis’ original motion and the Board’s later Official Statement, absolutely no effort was made by any of the currently seated Directors to rebuild a positive relationship between the Board and staff. We challenge the Board to list a single real example of where that effort was made.

To the contrary, some members of the currently seated Board purposefully built a hostile work environment. Ramping up in September 2013, the initial focus was to redirect an individual Director’s negative performance at the Monarch Festival to a staff problem.

By February 2014, that effort had escalated into an effort to punish staff after the Executive Director, doing her due diligence (an internal audit), wrote to the Board listing several ways in which the Board was operating out of compliance with the bylaws and state statutes, risking both financial and legal problems. To this day, the board has never discussed that letter’s content or the issues it highlighted, with the Executive Director.

However, several members were hugely angered and discussed it among themselves in private sessions. In March, Rita received a hand-delivered memorandum of reprimand, chiding her for writing the January letter on company time, placing her on probation and adding an incredible amount of additional and petty admin work. For instance, the reprimand demanded that all communications going outside of NENA be pre-approved by the board three days in advance. Basically, this incredibly vindictive document was retaliation for speaking up. Note that her letter was written after months of unsuccessfully trying to discuss and resolve these matters with Chair Knopp Schwyn.

Myth #3: That memorandum of reprimand was an official board approved action. It was not, no matter how they spin it. Director Jelatis introduced a draft of the letter during an executive session of the board, following their regular March 27th board meeting. Because an executive session excludes staff and public, it is considered private, no minutes are kept, and most importantly, no official board business may be conducted while in session. The only legally acceptable purpose is to discuss legal matters and/or personnel issues of a sensitive nature. Presumably, all board members present discussed the reprimand, and presumably all signed it. (Later, a now-former Director stated that he felt coerced into signing). Director Preston’s minutes and a later revision of same, both showed that the Chair never resumed a full board session to motion and pass the memorandum and its actions.

Director Jelatis took the letter home and revised it. The following day, Chair Knopp-Schwyn and Director Jelatis handed an unsigned, rewritten version to the Executive Director without comment. The full board never saw or approved the final version. Staff position was that it was not a valid NENA action or document and that most of the added requirements were vindictive and unworkable.

Myth #4: Where there is smoke, there is fire. Contrary to the implied reasons, the firings were not about performance, or lack thereof. In fact, the board, had not done an employee review in over 10 years and had nothing official to rate performance against. Understand that by contract, the board has the legal right to terminate an employee at any time, and for any reason, with 14 days’ notice as part of an official board action. They didn’t need “cause” to fire us. Of course, that doesn’t explain why Directors Jauli, Jones and Jelatis spent so much time and energy arguing against, and finding fault with, virtually everything staff did or proposed, as if trying to build just cause.

The truth is, in spite of a hostile work environment, we were looking forward to wrapping up a good year. We had new programs in the works, new technology for mass emails was ready and a new mobile-friendly website was being developed. We had just produced our largest and highest rated Monarch Festival ever and had made tremendous progress with integrating the Latino community (a requirement for our funding). We had four new board members, two of which had extensive board experience. NENA’s future funding was stable and the books were in good shape. Of course, we made mistakes during the year, our biggest being the poorly attended annual meeting in April–where the Board took over planning and most of the execution for the first time in memory.

This was about a personality conflict with certain Board members that became entrenched in their views and wanted to maintain total control of the neighborhood organization. It was about staff resisting micromanagement of the company side of NENA, and an effort to redirect a board that had become completely disengaged from NENA’s mission and the residents who elected them.

Myth #5: Staff knew it was coming. While there was history to predict the eventual outcome, the poison pill that Director Jelatis introduced at the very end of the October 23 meeting was not expected. We knew something was up, because Director Jauli, the driving force behind the anti-staff movement, was in attendance for perhaps the second time in all of 2014.

It was readily apparent that the individual Directors, with the exception of Directors Jauli and Jelatis, were caught off guard. Rita and I were in shock. It took several minutes for anyone to second the motion. (By Robert’s Rules of Order, the Chair should have stopped the motion for lack of second, but he instead allowed it to go into discussion.) Eventually Director Koncak seconded, then thought better of it and withdrew his second. Director Pikus-Li then immediately re-seconded the motion. For the record, former Directors Duran and Antin tried hard to delay the firings, requesting that at the very least, the full board should be informed of, and involved in, such an important change to NENA’s operations. Director Jelatis would hear none of that. I asked for a two week transition period where Rita and I could put things in order, turn over passwords, the website and secure private data like membership information and payroll. We also wanted to make sure that NENA had enough funding in the bank account to last a few months. Again, Director Jelatis outright rejected the idea.

It’s time for the Board to either remove the official statement or at least revise it to show the truth. The same mistruth has been spun since the end of October, and with every retelling, their dug-in position becomes grander. Yet, the facts show otherwise. I think the residents and businesses of Nokomis East deserve better.

The question that the membership should be asking is not about staff, but about what NENA has become.

Doug Walter