According to an old aphorism, “dog bites man” is not big news, however “man bites dog” is something to report. Consequently, in the arts world, “board of directors fires staff” may be of interest, but it’s hardly novel. “Staff fires board of directors” is something else entirely, and that’s what’s playing out right now in Seattle.
Of course, that’s highly reductive, but the fact is, on April 24, the majority of the staff of Theatre Puget Sound, a theatrical service organization for the greater Seattle community, signed a letter to their board which began, “In good faith, we ask you to resign from the TPS Board of Directors. We do this because you have given us reason to have no confidence in your leadership.” It further read, in part:
We stand united to inform you that we will not continue working under your governance. Should you reject this request for your resignation, we will discontinueour employment by May 7.
TPS is now paralyzed by an atmosphere of distrust and organizational dysfunction of your collective making and perpetuation, and only a newly constituted Board of Directors working in full trust, transparency, and partnership with an appropriately supported Executive Director and staff can effectively govern the organization going forward.
This request is made solely with the best interest of Theatre Puget Sound, its mission, and its membership in mind. In the Summer of 2016 you set in motion a cascade of substantial organizational actions, the inevitable consequences of which cannot now be disguised or avoided.
TPS cannot function without the current staff, but it can and will function without the existing Board.
To date, the TPS board has not resigned, and evidences no intention of doing so.
TPS has been going through a good deal of transition lately. Karen Lane, the organization’s longtime executive director, left her post in November 2016, succeeded on an interim basis by Zhenya Lavy, who had joined TPS in September 2016 as Lane’s deputy. According to a report by Rich Smith in The Stranger, the board asserts that it received a letter from Lavy on April 1, “demanding that they end their search for an executive director, install her in that position, and guarantee her a certain salary. If they don’t meet those demands, then she walks May 5. They have until April 7 to respond.” Per Smith, the board did not agree to the demands and reasserted their intention to conduct a full search.
In Smith’s account, “Lavy paints her ultimatum to the board–that they make her executive director or she leaves May 5 – as a matter of survival…even after working there for a few months, Lavy claims the board hadn’t yet outlined a clear job description for her, nor had they discussed pay commensurate to the task. Because she had been working so much since she started –spending upwards of three nights in arrow sleeping in the office, she says– she’d have to leave the company by May 5 in order to save her health.”
When the staff demanded the board resignation, one employee name was absent, that of Shane Regan, listed on the company website as being in charge of “programs” while identified by Smith in The Stranger as “membership programs associate.” Whatever his title, in the immediate wake of these events, an outpouring of comment on Facebook characterized Regan as the popular, most public face of TPS. Shortly before the letter was sent to the board asking then to resign, Lavy terminated Regan, she says for cause. Rumors swirled that he was fired for refusing to sign the letter, but Regan told Smith that he was never asked to sign the letter.
Smith reported that Lavy was suspended for firing Regan without board approval, but board member Shawn Belyea, who is speaking publicly on behalf of the board, told Arts Integrity that that was not the case. While being careful not to discuss matters that about employees that are legally precluded from being made public, Belyea did not cite Regan’s firing as the cause of her suspension, referring instead to the totality of recent events. He affirmed that the hiring and firing of staff members was within the purview of the executive director.
Because the day of Regan’s firing and the staff letter was also supposed to be the day of a board meeting, Belyea cites the circumstances of the meeting’s cancellation as one reason why Lavy has been suspended, even as he notes that because Regan never signed a termination letter, his status is actually now that of being on vacation. Belyea explained:
Unless it’s stated in the bylaws that you will have x number of public meetings or all your meetings will be public or any of those things, standard practice for non-profits is not public board meetings. Nor would there typically be public notice of the board meeting. So if you go back to Monday there was an announcement put out by the staff on the TPS website that said the board meeting is open to the public. Come to the public board meeting of the TPS board. So that alone constitutes some questionable action. Posting that, then sending out a public notice specifically inviting people from the public to come to the board meeting, that is also a very questionable act.
We had two options in this situation as a board. We have to go to the place where it has been incorrectly posted that the public is invited, where we know from other sources that people have been invited and told that the meeting is public. So we are faced with two choices: we have to go in and tell everybody, no, the board meetings are not public and then close the doors and exclude all these people, or we have to cancel the board meeting and do a separate executive session and start doing some investigation into why these things are happening and what is the agenda of the group that is doing them. All of these things happened on the day of the board meeting, so we did not have a lot of time to respond…
There’s a whole series of actions there that we need to investigate exactly who made those decisions, how those decisions came to be made, what the impact of those decisions are, what the legal ramifications of those decisions are, how these things were communicated to the staff, how these things reflect what the staff believes, what are the staff’s understanding of the situation of their decisions – there’s just a tremendous amount of fact finding that we have to do, partly because none of these actions were taken by the board.
Arts Integrity attempted to reach both Zhenya Lavy and staff member Catherine Blake Smith, identified by The Stranger as “membership and communications specialist,” but received no replies. A Facebook post by by former executive director Karen Lane, cited in The Stranger, backed the call for the board to resign.
In the staff’s resignation request, mention is made of legal counsel advising the staff, which led them to proffer the steps by which the board could resign and a new board take over without jeopardizing the company’s not-for-profit status. Belyea said the board has consulted several attorneys on not-for-profit procedure and human resources procedures, and was also being counseled by Josef Krebs at the consulting firm of Scandiuzzi Krebs, with additional support their City of Seattle liaison at the Seattle Center, where TPS manages multiple rehearsal studios.
Bottom line? It’s a mess. It’s also a very public mess, not simply because of the reporting in The Stranger, but because Lavy sent the request for the board’s resignation to a wide cross section of the Seattle community, including the media, leaders of other arts organizations, community philanthropists and more, and even included a pair of internal e-mails by the board. In addition, Lavy attached the theatre’s whistleblower policy, adopted only at the end of February.
This situation will play out for some time in Seattle. Belyea said the board’s investigation of events was not yet complete when speaking on April 20; a public forum on the situation is scheduled for April 27. It is described as follows on the company Facebook page:
The purpose of this meeting is to dialogue with members concerning recent events at TPS and to provide details regarding the upcoming search for the next Executive Director. Part of this discussion will be for the Board to hear feedback on how best to ensure members are meaningfully involved in the ED search process.
It’s worth noting that with Lavy’s circulation of the whistleblower policy, a flaw in that policy may be exposed. While it seems primarily structured to address issues that arise within the staff, within the board, or between the two, it doesn’t seem to speak to when the two constituencies find themselves in the position of questioning the performance of one another as complete entities. While the policy does allow for circumstances where an executive director’s complaints are lodged against the whole board, in which case they are to consult outside legal counsel, the policy does not suggest that such consultation precipitate the removal of the board. Indeed, the board that has the ultimate legal and fiduciary responsibility for the organization.
The circumstances that led to the brinksmanship at TPS are certainly specific to the organization and the individuals involved, both staff and board. Parsing every gory detail won’t serve the larger national arts community, though The Stranger is on the case for those who want more information, and for future study by arts management educators and students. However, the bird’s eye view of the contretemps should serve as a reminder for boards and executive and senior leadership of arts organizations to examine their practices and policies, because while the situation is rare, it demonstrates how a rapid cascade of events can put an arts organization at risk. That it holds the organization up for public examination, while embarrassing, is not necessarily a problem in and of itself, because it forces the organization to address what have surely been long festering concerns and structural issues.
To be sure, there is crisis at Theatre Puget Sound. As of this writing, the organization’s website lists only two staff members; one week ago it listed five. However, while who has acted properly or improperly, and who has the best interests of TPS at heart – and most likely everyone does, just as everyone probably shares some burden of blame for what evolved – are important questions, certainly a thorough reexamination of the organization’s purpose, structure, leadership and governance is vital. It’s regrettable that it took such an adversarial situation to bring it to the fore.
P.S. While it may now be a footnote in regional theatre lore, in 1976, Adrian Hall, artistic director of Trinity Repertory Theatre in Rhode Island, did essentially fire the theatre’s board when they sought to fire him after a controversial season. He replaced them with a board that supported his artistic vision. But that was 41 years ago, and Hall had personally founded the company. Few have tried it since, or at least few have tried and succeeded.
This post will be updated if the parties concerned respond to Arts Integrity’s prior inquiries, and as events transpire.
An earlier version of this post misspelled Josef Krebs’s first name. It has been corrected above.