The Right to be Publicly Critical

Posted December 13th, 2013 @ 8:47 AM by

For nonprofit staff, that right is being denied or at least highly discouraged by the City (and County?).

I’m about to tell you a story about something that happened to me. Honestly, its not a big deal in my life one way or another, but the larger policy issue, and the impact it has on the contracts of the agency I work for, and for others, is highly disturbing to me. The bullying, the intimidation and the implications of what happened are unacceptable to me. So . . . keep that in mind as you read on.

The Homeless Services Consortium is a group that is required by city contracts because they use it in applications to HUD to score more points. The group largely just gives agency updates about what is going on in the community but isn’t particularly effective in solving any issues or problems. The group is the Continuum of Care for the City – but there are really just a handful of people who make decisions about the Continuum of Care application to the federal government, the meetings are not open, we get no reports about them and we aren’t told when the meetings are – so they freeze out any agencies that might want to participate in that process by not giving us information. The larger group also makes recommendations to CDBG who recommends to the council how other funds are distributed. People mostly show up so they remain eligible for funding. Executive Directors of almost all the agencies stopped going to the meetings long ago and send their staff who have no power to make decisions for their agencies. However, HUD is now requiring that this group elect a board of directors, that there are more community members involved and that they have more actual power to decide about this funding. It’s a new thing, no one really knows how it will work and it will be a lot of work.

In September or October they put out a call for people to be on the board. A few people applied, but not enough to fill the seats. So, when they put out a second call, I figured that it was time for our agency to step up, because we haven’t been particularly involved in leadership or committee work of the group and I figured that it would be interesting and I could learn more. I submitted my statement, went to the interview and was nominated by the nominating committee. They had just enough people to fill all the seats and they announced that in November for a vote in December. I even volunteered to take a 1 year position instead of 2 year position.

I was on vacation out west the day of the vote. I was out west, using my vacation time and at my own expense, visiting homeless programs in Portland, Eugene, Olympia and Seattle. I notified city staff I would be gone (my mistake, I guess.) Apparently, when it came time to vote the city staff who runs the committee, read the following written statement and nominated another person to be on the board.

I don’t believe that a Board should be comprised of people who all generally agree with one another on all the issues. In fact robust discussions on the issues can produce a better product or idea. I do believe that Board members should have a professional respect for each other. I have made a nomination from the floor who personifies the ability to work with her peers. Brenda Konkel has publically criticized, both personally and professionally, other HSC agencies and staff. I will be voting for xxxxxx in the agency category in place of Brenda Konkel for these reasons.

I wasn’t there to say anything in my defense. My staff and Heidi Wegleitner spoke up on my behalf – especially since she works for Legal Action of Wisconsin that sues other members of the group on behalf of their clients – that definitely is being publicly critical!. This staff person that made the statement never talked to me about these concerns. This staff person is my contract administrator for the city for the Tenant Resource Center ($74,000). I have had several clashes with this person over policies like the city controlling the listserve for this Homeless Services Consortium and editing or refusing to send my emails to the group and sending them days later, at times when they were no longer relevant; requiring federal requirements in the boiler plate contract language for funds from the City of Madison – including money from Community Services which is a different division; transparency of the Homeless Services Consortium meetings and process; failure to disclose information to the group, scores on grant applications we submitted to the city etc. etc. etc. Ironically, quite frankly, because of its lack of effectiveness, I actually sent my staff member to the meetings for years, and just avoided it because it was a waste of time and highly irritating.

Needless to say, when other people are told by their contract administrator not to vote for me, and there are written ballots and a written record of who voted and who did not, I did not “win” the seat on the board. Gosh darn, less work for me . . . hard to be sad about it. What I am concerned about is my conversations about what happened with many people since this event. People feel intimated about speaking up, horrified about the way this happened, are worried about what they say and the future of their funding and are confused about what to do about the implications of these actions by this staff person that controls our contracts, makes recommendations on our funding, scores many of our applications for funding and generally informs the CDBG Commission and Council about the work we do.

Honestly, I am a little relieved to have had her do something this publicly, so people can see it for themselves first hand. There has been lots of behind the scenes grumbling about favoritism and unfair treatment of various agencies and now we have a clear example to have those conversations if we so choose.

So, since this happened, I’ve had lots of conversations and people reached out to me via email. Here’s some of the responses:
- The person nominated in my place feels bad. I’m not mad at the person. They do work in an agency that I have been critical of, but I think they should be on the board and that it is a good choice and I like this person. There is nothing but respect for this person from all the people that I talked to about this. That person had this to say:

I need to assure you that I had nothing to do with the editorial comments that were made after I was nominated. I did know that I was going to be nominated from the floor; I agreed to be considered several weeks ago. However, I simply, or perhaps naively, thought that I was being offered up as an additional choice on the ballet not to compete directly with you. I was extremely uncomfortable being put in the middle yesterday. I hope I made that clear when I addressed the group and said that I did not toss my hat in the ring to be pitted against you, but rather to be another person for the group to consider. I wish it could have been handled in a different way yesterday.

- The group is supposed to have homeless or formerly homeless people on the board, but many of the homeless people who come to the meetings were not considered. One person thought that I would fill that void in speaking up for the folks that aren’t represented on the board. There are no currently homeless people on the board and one of the people who was nominated for a formerly homeless person works in one of the agencies that now has two seats on this board. (Again, its not about the person that was nominated, but the policy and practical implications of this election.)
- One person told me that they were restricting what they say in the community in their personal volunteer work because they would get in trouble at work if they spoke out.
- There was concern that in order for people to be eligible to vote for the board they had to come to three meetings in the last year and the group elected people to the board that did not meet those requirements – several of them.
- Many people asked me to make sure that I don’t get intimidated by this, to continue speaking out to say the things that others won’t or can’t say.
- Staff in the agencies that I have been critical of have told me that there are issues and while they don’t always agree with me, they agree changes need to be made. Improvements in services is what many of us want, we many just disagree about what they might be or if they can be done. Funding is key to the agencies being able to provide more adequate services, we all know that.

However, I think there is general consensus to just move on and pretend it didn’t happen because we have work to do.

I did try to address the issue with this staff person and her supervisor, sent this email 8 days ago – but I got no response:

So if you had these concerns, why didn’t you bring them up with me in advance? Especially since I was going to be out of town and didn’t have the opportunity to defend myself. Or at least give me a heads up? Not very professional on your part if you ask me. xxxxxx feels awful for being put in this position and says she naively agreed to it not knowing what was going on and was very uncomfortable with the position she was put in. What am I to do if my grant administrator is actively recruiting against me and won’t communicate concerns they have to me? Can you maintain your professionalism in administering my grant, or do I need to ask for someone else to do it in the future. You have never once expressed these concerns to me in a professional setting – if you had these concerns I would have appreciated some minimal level of respect from you – as a professional.

Sigh. I don’t expect a response.

I’ve been to two meetings with this person this week. Awkward. The first meeting it was clear everyone in the room was highly uncomfortable. It was a meeting where we were supposed to be talking about coordinating homeless services and intake (a 146,000 contract that TRC applied for and didn’t get – I questions the scores, especially on the budget, but didn’t get any answers about why our scores were low in that area. Sadly, we are still doing the work and if we refer our clients to them, they say we are “dumping” on them.) No one was saying anything or giving input – no one seemed to want to speak up at first. The frost melted about half way through the meeting. The staff person hasn’t said anything to me about what happened besides send me the written statement they read.

There is a high degree of uncertainty about if this person was just carrying water for someone else, and who that might be or if this person acted on their own. There is also a high degree of concern about why they were so afraid to let me be on this board.

My major concern is, for many, the signal has been sent. Speak up – Lynn Green from the county will randomly cut your funding in its entirety without reason, and not based on performance or need in the community. Speak up – and you will get lower scores on your RFP (grant applications). Speak up – and staff will not recommend your agency for funding. Speak up – and you will be personally and unfairly publicly attacked by the staff person who administers your contract. Do not speak up. Bury your head in the sand, remain invisible, keep your funding safe.

I’m getting a little sick of being the one who speaks up and says what so many others are thinking. I’m getting a little sick of being targeted for speaking up – mostly as an individual – and the staff targeting funding for Tenant Resource Center because of my activities with Occupy Madison. I’m getting sick of having to have these conversations with my Board of Directors. But, I will not shut up. I have a right to be publicly critical – free speech and all that. I will not be intimidated, I will not be bullied, I will not go away, and I will organize and agitate until real change happens in this community – until services to the homeless are delivered adequately and in ways that are respectful and fair. I don’t care if people don’t like me. I will continue to fight tooth and nail for funding for my agency and for those decisions to be made fairly and transparently. I will not stand down until everyone who wants to be in shelter in a way that meets their needs, can do so. I will not stand down until we have a day center that provides the services people need in a permanent and comprehensive manner, until people are given the dignity and respect they deserve and until no one sleeps outside on a night like last night because the alternatives are worse. It is morally and ethically the right thing to do and I can do no less.

Categories: | Dane | Madison | Media

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