Vlamis booted from BEC
Board asks longtime executive director to accept a co-directorship, but she refuses
Barbara Vlamis, who fought fiercely for environmental causes as executive director of the Butte Environmental Council, may now be planning to fight fiercely for her post after recently being fired.
Vlamis was removed from her position at a June 25 closed-door session of BEC’s board of directors after refusing to accept a co-directorship in an advocacy position, said board Chairman Jim Gregg. She also refused to resign.
“We were allowing her to keep control of the most important work BEC does: its advocacy,” Gregg said. “Basically, she was unwilling to accept re-assigned duties. She said, ‘You’ll have to fire me.’ We’re calling this a termination.”
Vlamis has served as executive director for 17 years, earning a reputation as a formidable advocate for conserving wilderness and wetlands and protecting water rights, often taking on government and powerful private interests through litigation.
Two board members, Gregg and Robin Huffman, said they hoped not to lose Vlamis and her considerable bank of skills and knowledge when they made plans to restructure the organization’s leadership position. They hoped to hire an administrative co-director and keep Vlamis on as advocacy co-director.
“The board is very saddened,” Gregg said in a Tuesday (June 30) telephone interview. “We offered her an opportunity to stay on with alternative work assignments. We were just redirecting some of them.”
Gregg sounded dismayed after returning to Chico from an out-of-town trip and reading that Roy Ekland, an attorney who has worked pro bono for BEC and attended the June 25 closed-door session at Vlamis’ request, was contacting other BEC supporters and predicting the firing would prove “fractious.”
Over the past several decades, BEC has become a well-established advocacy organization—probably the only member-supported Northern California environmental group north of Sacramento—winning community support and respect. Organization supporters become BEC members, or even “angels,” by making a sliding-scale donation. A seven-member board of directors governs the nonprofit.
The board planned to announce its June 25 action to some 800 BEC members after Gregg returned to Chico on Tuesday. But word of the firing had already slipped out, and Huffman, contacted for an interview, confirmed that Vlamis had been “removed” from her post and BEC was undergoing a “transition.”
“She’s been stressed and overworked and has been telling the board that,” Huffman explained.
But Ekland framed the dismissal as a fight over organizational strategy.
The real problem, Ekland said, are board members who are more comfortable with “the soft side of environmentalism” such as recycling and park cleanups. The board “didn’t appreciate the confrontation politics the Drought Water Bank has required,” he said.
The Drought Water Bank was created by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to transfer control over surface and groundwater resources in the Northern Sacramento Valley to what it calls “needy districts”—irrigation districts that serve corporate farms on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley, Ekland said.
Ekland called Vlamis’ removal a “gift” to water agencies and to Schwarzenegger. “She was a strident spokesperson for the right of the northern Sacramento Valley to control its groundwater resources,” Ekland said.
Gregg said he found many of Ekland’s comments “ludicrous” and “unfair.”
“We have never been critical of her out in the field,” Gregg said of Vlamis. “We have been in her corner all the way, even when it required litigation. Her strategy has never been an issue.”
Huffman echoed that sentiment.
“I wouldn’t have joined the board without the wonderful work and advocacy of Barbara,” said Huffman. “She’s a soldier for the cause, a warrior for the environment. This wasn’t an action the board took lightly.”
Gregg said the desire to create a co-directorship at BEC was driven by a problem of “work overload” that Vlamis has been dealing with. “She has complained for years about being overworked,” Gregg said. “We wanted to break [her job] into two positions and have fiscal, budgeting, staffing under one [separate] administrative position.”
Pressed further on the reasoning, Gregg said, “I’m not going to go into more detail.”
The proposal to split the executive-director position wasn’t new. It was floated in an October 2007 letter to the board that was signed by 16 BEC supporters. The letter identifies four members of a previous board, and one staffer, that it says all resigned “due to difficulties working with the BEC executive director…”
The letter mentions there had been several unsuccessful attempts to resolve problems related to “communication and power sharing” through mediation.
Vlamis could not be reached for comment. At BEC’s Second Street office June 29, a staffer declined to comment.
Ekland dismissed the possibility that Vlamis was removed because she alienated supporters or board members. “Certainly they did not discuss that June 25,” he said.
“She is not warm and cuddly,” Ekland said. “But she’s exactly the type of person you need to deal with the onslaught from the Department of Water Resources, the Drought Water Bank. … You want someone who’s not going to roll over.”
Ekland said the advocacy position offered Vlamis required her to accept a “demotion.”
“They wanted to demote her and they put her in an untenable position so she would resign,” he said. Instead, she has “forced the board to confront the consequences of their actions.”
Because four board members will step down before September as their terms come to an end, Ekland said he suggested the board document its concerns with Vlamis’ leadership, give her a chance to respond in writing and forward those materials to the incoming board.
“I am perplexed by the action of the board,” Ekland said. “The board has blinked. It’s backpedaled.
“All I can say is, as a BEC member, I’m meeting with other members. We’re looking for ways to confront this capricious and arbitrary action by the board. We’ll see whether the membership supports the board or Barbara.”
Gregg was grim in response, acknowledging that a group of BEC members could attempt to unseat the board over Vlamis’ dismissal. “If they choose to fight that way, so be it,” he said, “I’ve given it my best judgment.”