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Keeping community groups public

Community group volunteers are a valuable resource. They provide free labor to achieve the organization’s goals and mission. And usually they are the primary contributors or provide access to major sources of funding.

Unfortunately, some very worthy community associations fall into the hands of an insider clique that wants to run the show as its private hobby. Museums are especially vulnerable to this problem because the members of the board of trustees are collectors or principal donors. They feel they can work their way into control or dependence despite what the paid staff or other members want.

Two venerable San Diego organizations were slammed by this problem last week. The Sierra Club’s local chapter is facing suspension and Balboa Park’s Automotive Museum rejected efforts to expand.

Columnist Ron Carrico revealed the obstinacy of controlling directors of the San Diego Automotive Museum even to discuss benefits of collaboration with the neighboring Air and Space Museum. Such an association could provide more display space for both groups and potential operating efficiencies. It’s a proposal that has been around for years, but stymied by the self-serving leaders of the Automotive Museum.

I can vouch for that situation as I preceded Carrico in resigning from that board for similar issues way back in 1993. It’s a miracle that the museum has survived with its tunnel vision and ability to turn away prominent collectors who would like to share their interest and resources with the community.

I have been fortunate to serve as a trustee for over 50 years on several community not-for-profit boards that require rotation of volunteer members. I note that term limits are a block to insider cliques taking control. These organizations benefit from fresh new ideas and expansion of community outreach that can avoid fiscal crises and internal management disruption. The best kind of community group is ruled by majority consensus, not individual gratification.

Most prominent in local and national news last week was the announcement that the national Sierra Club is voting next month whether or not to suspend the San Diego chapter for four years. Reading between the lines and from my own experience, the critical issue is again control by an insider group that drives away board and club members.

This is a serious matter and a great blot on one of the largest and most vital environmental groups in the nation. San Diego has accomplished many great land and ecology projects with the support of the San Diego Sierra Club Chapter over many decades. However, there have been prior confrontations with the national club headquarters over support of Sierra Club ecology policies and efforts for the national office to micromanage local chapter operations.

Here is where discord between national and local chapter can happen. It opposes the basic concept of the century-old Sierra Club tradition of grassroots governance. That often creates the problem. Carolyn Chase, noted longtime environmentalist and former chair of the San Diego chapter, said she left the post in frustration over internal politics.

National and local Sierra Club officials are mum on the specifics of the proposed suspension except to say the issue is not financial. There is a lawsuit pending against the Sierra Club brought by a former chairman of the San Diego executive committee. The plaintiff claims he was unjustifiably removed from office and banished for life for any elected position in the club.

That kind of accusation is indicative of the longtime strife in the local chapter. Some 15 years ago I was privileged to be a member of the Sierra Club National Advisory Council. Although not active in the San Diego chapter, I was made aware of the local management discord with the national office. It apparently was over the chapter’s lack of financial support of the national office and an independent attitude about governance. I stayed away from that issue.

The status of the San Diego chapter is not unique. The national office has put other chapters on suspension in past years. The Florida and Santa Barbara-Ventura chapters were suspended because of secret meetings, voter fraud and other leadership irregularities that divided chapter members.

The national Sierra Club board will vote Feb. 10 on the San Diego suspension.

There have been scandals and fiscal failures among San Diego’s not-for-profit organizations over the years. However, most of the arts and social welfare groups have done commendable work to bring credit to our community. It all depends on how committed the directors and trustees are to serve the public as volunteers, not as proprietors.

Ford is a freelance writer in San Diego. He can be reached at johnpatrick.ford@sddt.com

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David Grubb 3:54pm January 30, 2014

Carolyn Chase was voted out by the members of the San Diego Chapter. She served as Chapter Chair in 2010 and 2011. At the end of 2011, her term on the Chapter Executive Committee was up, and she ran for re-election. She lost. The Sierra Club Board of Directors will vote on the suspension on February 21st.