Up until a few weeks ago, my wife was Executive Director of something called the Great Northern Catskills Chamber of Commerce. That unwieldy name is an attempt at re-branding the Greene County Chamber of Commerce, and the transition is going slowly and not exactly according to plan. The struggles of the Great Northern Catskills Chamber of Commerce (quite a mouthful, isn’t it?) are in no way linked to my wife’s role there, however. Quite the contrary, in fact—Barbara did everything she could to make what was only a so-so idea work.
The Chamber’s struggles have been caused by what would seem to be shoddy planning and execution on the part of its board of directors, particularly the chair and vice chair, and by some serious ethical lapses. It was the combination of these factors, along with punitive actions that were taken after Barbara blew the whistle on an improper and wasteful allocation of chamber funds, that led her to resign.
The ethical issues remain a very serious problem. And at a time when Catskill and the county need all the economic support and expertise they can get, the chamber’s ethically compromised leadership is a hindrance rather than a help.
The chamber’s office in Catskill—not much help for Main Street.
The problems were first apparent during my wife’s interview process. The position was originally described as President and CEO of the (then Greene County) chamber, but by the time Barbara accepted the job it had been “downsized” to the Executive Director title. This freed up funds which, it turned out, allowed the vice chair, Tom Fucito, to hire one of his acquaintances for a no-show position. Barbara was of course appalled by this, but Fucito and board chair Kathleen McQuaid persuaded her to give the arrangement a chance. The result: my wife did all the work the original position required, while collecting a fraction of what her predecessor was paid.
The no-show appointee, one Doug Calkins, took six weeks’ paid leave in the eight months he was on board. During this time, he reported what could only have comprised a few hours’ work each month, which mostly consisted of things like phone calls or making appointments or the occasional meeting. He was not required to come to the chamber office, nor did he regularly have to account for the time he spent on chamber business. For this, he was paid a full month’s salary. Everyone in the chamber office was aware of Calkins’s special, no-show job status, and of course they resented it. But, they were afraid to speak out.
This went on for eight months, as noted. Barbara protested in several emails to McQuaid. Finally she had enough, and confronted Facito over the Calkins issue at a chamber board meeting. Once the actual facts were on the table (six weeks’ paid time off in eight months, an hourly wage that amounted to well over $250 an hour for the time spent, etc.), the board had no choice but to ask Calkins to resign. The excuse for this sorry episode? We hired him too soon, before there was enough work for him to do. (His “work”, by the way, was supposed to be as a “Community Liaison”—a title Barbara concocted out of thin air when no one knew what to call the new position.)
Once Facito and McQuaid had been embarrassed in front of the rest of the board, the proverbial shit hit the fan: Barbara was placed on probation and threatened with immediate termination if she ever opened her mouth about chamber improprieties again. What’s more, she was handed a five-page document by McQuaid that added considerably to her already substantial job responsibilities, including subsidiary tasks such as receptionist duties. This was pure harassment, punishment for blowing the whistle on Calkins. There was no longer any way she could hope to do her job properly, so she resigned.
Even with Calkins gone, the chamber is riddled with ethical compromises. The organization has a formal Code of Ethics, which states in part that board members “are expected to embody such values as honesty, integrity, trustworthiness….” Further, it defines conflicts of interest as including “self interest relating to financial gains.” Both McQuaid and Fucito are in flagrant violation of this.
The Chamber also has a Conflict of Interest disclosure form; I have no idea whether McQuaid or Fucito has signed it, or if so, what their explanation could have been.
McQuaid’s company has received some $12,000 for website and design work during 2012; she apparently told my wife it had “been promised to her” (in exchange for serving as the board chair). Certainly no bids were put out for this work. And shortly before Barbara resigned, Fucito submitted a $525 accounting invoice for preparation of chamber taxes (in contrast to the pro bono accounting work which had been done previously). Documentation exists for both the McQuaid and Fucito invoices, BTW.
A chamber of commerce is supposed to support and assist local business. This is especially true in times of steep recession, such as we’ve experienced since 2008. Our local chamber has done just the opposite, with ethically challenged board members siphoning off money that could have (and should have) gone to local businesses, and with a no-show, no-work employee who drained the chamber’s bank account to no good purpose. And more ethical conflicts lie ahead: both McQuaid and Fucito plan to remain on the board next year, and McQuaid’s replacement as chairperson is slated to be a county employee who manages the grant programs that benefit small businesses which make up the bulk of chamber membership. Another built-in conflict.
When people like Vince Seeley and others are working strenuously and honestly to bring Main Street, Catskill and Greene County back from the brink, we can’t afford a Chamber of Commerce that’s moving in the opposite direction. The chamber needs to be cleaned up, now. McQuaid and Fucito should resign from the board at once, and the next chair should be a reputable local business person, not a county employee.