BEC’s exercise in openness

Extraordinary meeting airs dirty laundry, seeks reconciliation between fired leader and Board of Directors

ONE PERSON, TWO SIDES<br> Barbara Vlamis (right) offers her explanation of events surrounding her firing to nearly 150 members of the Butte Environmental Council, as members of the board (to her right) look on.

Barbara Vlamis (right) offers her explanation of events surrounding her firing to nearly 150 members of the Butte Environmental Council, as members of the board (to her right) look on.

Photo By Robert Speer

‘I’m a member’
The BEC meeting was for members only, and some reporters were told it was off limits. Author Robert Speer is a member of BEC, however, so he was allowed in. His message to the excluded reporters: You can join BEC too.

Does Barbara Vlamis, fired after 17 years as executive director, have a future role to play with the Butte Environmental Council? Can she and the members of BEC’s Board of Directors get along well enough to work together? Or has so much damage been done—so much trust violated—that “never the twain shall meet,” as one speaker phrased it?

Those were the central questions that emerged from BEC’s extraordinary general-membership and Board of Directors meeting Monday night, July 20, at the University of Phoenix, called so members could learn more about and be able to comment on Vlamis’ firing.

As Leslie Layton reported in this space on July 2 (“Vlamis booted from BEC”), Vlamis was let go on June 25 during a closed-door meeting of the Board of Directors.

The board, believing the executive directorship had become too much for one person, had decided to break it into two parts, an administrative director and an advocacy director, and offered Vlamis the latter position. Jim Gregg, president of the board, told Layton that Vlamis refused the position and also refused to resign. “You’ll have to fire me,” she reportedly said, so that’s what the board did.

Organizers of the impromptu meeting had been expecting a smaller turnout, but when nearly 150 people showed up, they had to bring in extra chairs to accommodate everyone, such was the controversy and interest surrounding the matter. Around 40 people spoke at the meeting, which lasted three hours.

It was made clear at the outset that no action would be taken. Gregg stated that organizers had not followed proper procedure, in particular by not giving sufficient notice of the event. Nevertheless, he said, the board thought the meeting was a good idea and wanted to hear what members had to say.

They got an earful.

Local developer Tom DiGio-vanni, a leader of the group of about 13 BEC members who asked for the meeting, said they believed “something went horribly awry” when Vlamis was fired and were hoping the board would reconsider its action and try to reconcile with her so she could continue the advocacy work at which they all agreed she excelled.

The firing was “a turning point for BEC, and we felt it should be discussed in a broad way,” he explained.

Retired biology professor Greg Alexander, another of the organizers, said the group believed the board had failed to take into consideration Vlamis’ and BEC’s regional influence on environmental issues, the result largely of her organizational skills, knowledge and determination. He also said the action was poorly timed, coming just as Vlamis was caring for her dying mother.

The board had delegated its secretary, Armeda Ferrini, to describe the events leading up to Vlamis’ firing. Vlamis long had complained of being overworked but had blocked every effort to relieve her of responsibilities, Ferrini said. Relations with the board were bad; administrative problems were piling up; employees felt abused and underappreciated. The board had tried twice in years past to resolve differences with Vlamis—even calling in a mediator—but had been unsuccessful.

Last year the board authorized the hiring of an administrative assistant, Nikki Schlaishunt, who has a master’s degree in public administration, to help with managerial duties, but she quit in frustration after just six months, Ferrini said.

When the board finally met with Vlamis, Ferrini continued, “she brought in a witness and had him speak for her.” Because of that, the meeting went badly and Vlamis was fired.

Another board member, Lynn Barris, described Vlamis as “an excellent advocate,” but she assured the members BEC’s advocacy work would continue. “The organization will go on, it will go on at the same pace, and it will be as hard-line as it’s ever been,” she insisted.

There was a big round of applause when Vlamis stepped up to have her say.

“To be clear, I did not refuse the suggested job change, but the terms of the change,” she said, including a salary cut of one-third, loss of benefits and being put on probation.

She also denied ever having challenged the board to fire her: “That never came out of my mouth.”

She knew in May, when the board started having closed-session meetings without her, that “a train wreck was coming.” At the time, however, she was dealing with a medical emergency that threatened her mother’s life, “and I had to be there to take care of it. … The board members were not sensitive or kind in my hour of medical emergency.

“I’ll never understand it,” she said, nor the board’s hurry: “There was a rush to get this done that has never been explained.”

Then it was time for BEC members to speak. It quickly became clear that most agreed on two key points: that Vlamis was exceptionally good at advocacy—a “ferocious warrior,” one woman called her—but exceptionally bad at managing people and administering the nonprofit as a business.

The speakers fell largely into two camps. The first included those who knew and supported her for her activism (especially on groundwater issues), believed the board had insulted her with its pay offer, and really didn’t care how the organization was managed internally. The second included those past and present board members, employees and volunteers who had worked closely with Vlamis and deeply regretted the experience.

Almost all of them, however, hoped the board would reconsider its decision and try to work out some kind of arrangement with Vlamis so she could continue her advocacy work.

Scott McNall, executive director of the university’s Institute for Sustainable Development, was fairly typical. The board acted courageously and made the right decision in restructuring the organization, he said, but Vlamis is “one of the most passionate advocates in California.” The money to pay her salary can be raised, he insisted.

Mike Jackson, a Plumas County attorney who was instrumental in crafting the historic Quincy Library Group forest-harvesting compromise, spoke about Vlamis’ valuable work throughout the region. “She may not be the best manager,” he said, “but I do know what she means to the state of California. … We need tough people, and she’s the best we’ve got. … If it’s only a money problem, we could pass a hat and raise it in two weeks.”

But there were many people who spoke of the difficulty of working with Vlamis. Several former board members—including Susan Mason, Tempra Board and Tanya Henrich—spoke of a board that never was really in charge. “I felt like Barbara was running the whole organization and the board was only token,” Henrich said.

Mason, whose volunteer work in Bidwell Park is legendary, said that during her two-year stint on the BEC board, “I was treated poorly and resigned.” The organization “has lost many volunteers over the years [because of Vlamis] who would have contributed greatly to BEC,” she added.

Board said that during her two-year tenure she saw “major dysfunction—for example, no accurate financial reports. Barbara was too busy. Staff were hired without job descriptions, and their positions overlapped.”

She and a former BEC employee Jennifer Oman-Payne both noted that Vlamis had sometimes diverted grant money meant for specific projects into her advocacy efforts. “It concerned me that grants were not being implemented in a way that would make BEC more grant-worthy,” Oman-Payne said.

Just what happened at that June 25 meeting became more apparent when attorney Roy Ekland spoke. Identifying himself as the “unnamed witness” who accompanied Vlamis that day, he launched into a vituperative attack on the board, saying her firing “had nothing to do with performance and everything to do with humiliation” in the form of lower pay and reduced status.

Heretofore the meeting had been remarkably temperate, with speakers carefully keeping their emotions in check, but Ekland was furious and showed it. His voice rising, he said it was “time for the membership … to resist a board that is driving by animosity and hostility toward Barbara.”

That was too much for Ferrini. Rising, she asked to respond to the comments made so far. For one, she said, the pay reduction was actually a reduction in hours, from 40 to 32, with the opportunity to restore the money through grants. There was no loss of health insurance and no probationary period, she added. (A call to the BEC office later confirmed that all employees had taken cuts in hours in response to a financial crunch.)

Then Ferrini said pointedly, “Part of the reason we had so much trouble during that meeting was sort of what you saw here.” She pointed at Ekland.

It was impossible to tell what impact the hours of testimony had on the BEC board—whether they would reconsider their action and try to work something out with Vlamis, as so many members had requested, or simply move on.

This is the first board ever to confront the challenges Vlamis presented head-on. Historically she’s been too strong for the boards, and members have resigned in response—one time doing so en masse.

Everyone knows how influential she has been outside Chico, and now everybody knows the impact she’s had inside BEC, on the employees and volunteers and board members, as well. Whether this airing of dirty laundry is “helpful,” as Vlamis said she hoped it would be, remains to be seen. Ultimately it was less about her and more about BEC: what it was and what it wants to become.

Certainly it was a rare instance of public transparency. The careful thought and consideration that informed the members’ comments—Ekland’s outburst aside—was admirable. And the respect for the Butte Environmental Council and all it and Barbara Vlamis have done was almost palpable. It’s safe to say most members left still feeling hopeful.