The Changing of the Guard

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Change is inevitable but does it really mean we’re moving forward?

By James Preston Allen, Publisher

It seems the more citizens clamor and agitate for more transparency in government and other civic institutions, the more opaque things become. Legal employee protection rules shield nonprofit officials from accountability. Real estate transactions of institutions working for the public benefit are hidden from prying eyes. All of the above works toward preventing leaders of these nonprofits from being held publicly accountable.

The most blatant examples can be seen in the hiring and firing of executive directors—a significant number of which we have seen in past two years. Shall I list a few ?

• Debra Lewis, director of Angels Gate Cultural Center, left barely waving goodbye;

• Betsy Cheek, president and CEO of the San Pedro Chamber, resigned and was replaced by Elise Swanson, formerly the district director of Rep. Janice Hahn’s office (under curious circumstance);

• Port of Los Angeles Executive Director Geraldine Knatz resigned after a $200 million cost overrun of a project to fully automate the TraPac terminal came under Mayor Eric Garcetti’s scrutiny. And I won’t forget to mention the expensive price tag on the port’s upgraded environment-friendly yacht, The Angelina;

Of course, all of these changes in management are never fully explained publicly.

More recently, the resignations of Port of Los Angeles High School Executive Director, Jim Cross, and Executive Director Rachel Etherington of AltaSea (a marine science nonprofit organization that is backed by POLA and the Annenberg Foundation) caught many by surprise. What led to the change in leadership was far from transparent.

I recently interviewed Camilla Townsend who was involved in the creation of both of these organizations. Though she is now chairwoman of AltaSea’s board of directors and is a POLAHS trustee, there was little that she could reveal about the dismissal of either of these popular directors.

In Cross’ case, he left amid allegations that he misspent funds following an internal investigation. However, I was told the money that was misspent was a relatively small amount. That called for him to simply reimbursed the school, and for the school to reimbursed Cross for purchases he made for the school from his own personal funds. This canceled out the debt.

In both cases, Townsend wasconsidered the only one with the skill to act as a first responder for a nonprofit in crisis and “fix” the situation. My interview with her will be in an upcoming issue of this paper.

The most recent resignation to make the news is that of Dr. Michael Brophy, the president of Marymount College. He was invited by some visionary local leaders to bring that campus into the downtown San Pedro area, and was convinced of its importance to the community and business leaders.

By all appearances, he succeeded. Yet along the way, grumblings have grown louder about the slow pace of opening the Klaus Art Center and soundness of Brophy’s strategy of opening a remote Northern California satellite campus in Lake County. His resignation comes on the heels of his being reelected to the San Pedro Chamber of Commerce and the San Pedro Business Improvement District, both of which will have to find replacements come August.

Obviously, this wasn’t a planned changing of the guard, even though Brophy announced he’ll be assuming the leadership of Benedictine University in Illinois after serving 10 years at Marymount.

These changes may just be coincidental. Or I may just be reading something more into this. Regardless of what these changes mean for each of these institutions individually, I think the resignations and new hires collectively hold a greater meaning.

This period of change in San Pedro’s civic life relates directly to the work of crafting our future. I read into this a faltering of the collective vision of that future, or rather, of us collectively questioning the direction we have taken.

This moment is one of trepidation and reassessment of whether something more fundamental has changed.

This comes in part because of the changes in political leadership that loom on the horizon. Rep. Hahn is running for Los Angeles County Supervisor in 2016 and State Sen. Isadore Hall will run to replace her in Congress. Add to that the challenge offered by Hermosa Beach Councilwoman Nanette Barragan running as an anti-corporate, pro-environment alternative, who’s arguably much more in tune with the district’s needs and values.

This moment also has to do with the challenges of dealing with the global trade at our two ports as Harbor Commissioner Dave Arian spoke about recently–a development that foretells the fate of tens of thousands of jobs in the goods movement industry.

More importantly, it speaks to the Harbor Area leadership’s lack of a cohesive vision.

In other words, there is no single leader or group that has taken up the visionary silver chalice to explain where all of this is heading and who has enough buy-in from the institutions involved to lead anywhere except in circles.

This is odd, since many of the seats on the boards of directors of these nonprofit groups are occupied by the same people. The cross- board membership connections between many of the institutions listed above reflects a certain narrowing of leadership. I question the wisdom of such self-serving and limited decision making.

Clearly, in the case of most nonprofits, board leadership equates to the amount of their contributions based on dollars rather than vision, wisdom or sense for the collective good. From my perspective, the changing guard of executive directors will make about as much difference as changing one’s shirt. What’s needed is some new blood on these boards and leaders who can actually envision a future that benefits the many, not just the few.

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