by Martha Farish
Orcas Island resident
We have a very real problem. It is increasingly difficult to recruit qualified people for leadership positions when they face attacks and false claims like those experienced by the EWUA board members in Steve Smith’s recall effort.
Ask board members who serve the fire and rescue if they felt attacked and maligned. Is this the best we can do? Repeatedly?
The EWUA controversy has been troubling. We have legal challenges, threats of lawsuits, public character slander, and much more. I am deeply hoping we will carefully weigh what these events mean not only for our water utility but also for the health of our non-profits.
For openers, I believe the current EWUA board and GM are operating especially well. They exhibit many of the best attributes needed for the job, and they are implementing positive changes recommended by the professional reviews. They possess invaluable institutional memory.
Let us identify the codes of conduct we are willing to accept as bedrock for good governance and board behavior. Let us identify those things that get us into trouble and avoid them. Let us agree on the legal and ethical standards and cooperative behaviors we expect of boards and board members.
• Let us not “shoot first, aim later.” In the case of EWUA, Steve Smith and Tenar Hall could have cooperated with the existing board in waiting for the independent investigations. They instead went public first, making inflammatory public allegations and calling for Dan Burke, GM, to be fired.
• Why can’t we take “yes” for an answer? The EWUA board has already corrected most of the problems and implemented the recommended policy and procedures. They have already approved conducting a full audit and designed improved financial controls. Is that not enough? In addition, the EWUA board sought a “cultural audit” to address the non-financial issues.
Steve Smith misappropriated for his personal use documents and email lists. Former board treasurer Tenar Hall elected to go public with wild assertions that over $100,000 was “missing” and Dan Burke “should be fired.” The board rightfully opted instead for an independent, third-party investigation. Smith and Hall then falsely declared that move to be a “cover-up” by the board to “protect Dan Burke.”
Steve Smith sent a personal email to one board member threatening to go to war and that reputations will be damaged and careers lost if challenges to Steve’s leadership did not cease. This email followed an earlier rejection of Smith’s land development proposal by the board who rightfully deemed it off mission and too risky for EWUA’s participation.
We need honesty, transparency, integrity, and intelligent risk management to run our water utility. I am not convinced that Smith is offering solutions that meet that standard.
From the beginning of the EWUA debate, Smith and Hall could have traveled a customary and reasonable path for conflict resolution and organizational improvement. They could have waited until the facts were in and Smith could have avoided triggering the legal argument that resulted in his removal by the board. ALL of this could have been avoided, but sadly it was not.
I firmly believe we can do better.