Disagreement carries over into annual meeting

Posted: Wednesday, September 15, 2004

The Alaska Statewide Independent Living Council, an organization dedicated to promoting independence for Alaskans living with disabilities, is expected to hold its annual board meeting in Homer this week.

But Monday, less than 48 hours before it was to start, it appeared questionable whether enough members would show up even to fill out a six-member quorum.

The public meeting, to be held Wednesday and Thursday at Land's End Resort, is critical because the nonprofit organization's bylaws require, among other things, that members elect board officials during the annual meeting held in August or September each year.

As of Monday afternoon, only five members were known to be coming. Three, including the board's chair, Erma Perry of Palmer, have excused absences. Two others, including Phillip A. Edgerly of Kasilof, are now saying they will not attend, though they apparently voted earlier this year to hold the meeting. Their absences would leave the 10-member board one short of a quorum.

Internal politics may have something to do with the reluctance of some members to appear.

According to Patrick Reinhart, executive director of the program for the past dozen years, disagreements have arisen between board members Reinhart and Perry that have caused conflicts that are, in Reinhart's view, hindering the board's ability to function and meet its responsibilities to its clients.

"Clearly, it's a divided council, and that makes it difficult," Reinhart said in an interview Monday. "We have a lot of issues important to people with disabilities."

The federal law that created independent living center programs around the nation envisioned those agencies as independent of state control. But for 10 years, the SILC was part of the Alaska Department of Labor and Workforce Development. In 2003, Gov. Frank Murkowski's administration interpreted the law as requiring that the SILC become an independent organization.

The governor still appoints board members, but today the group is an Alaska nonprofit corporation and has applied for 501c3 status under federal tax law.

In September 2003, Perry was elected chair by a majority of the board. Since then, she has been at odds with some board members and the executive director over various issues, including the expenditure of organization funds, bylaws issues and, lately, over the scheduling of the upcoming meeting.

The meeting is expected to include reports delivered by representatives of Alaska Housing Finance Corp., the Alaska Mental Health Trust, the Governor's Council on Disabilities and Special Education-Youth Issues, and senior and disability services.

Also to be discussed will be how a grant recently acquired through Aging and Disability Resource Center will be distributed. The SILC, with the help of AHFC, applied for the three-year grant to create one-stop centers for disabled citizens and seniors who need help with long-term needs, nursing homes, in-home services and the like. The money also may help cover the costs of Medicaid pre-eligibility screening, Reinhart said.

The Kenai Peninsula Independent Living Center and the Southeast Independent Living Center in Juneau have been selected as pilot centers and will each get $45,000 per year for the next three years to beef up information and referral services.

"The centers for independent living have served all age groups," Reinhart said. "The grant will help them serve more seniors."

The board also is supposed to elect its officers, hear public testimony, vote on bylaw amendments, set its two-year meeting calendar, discuss insurance and legal issues and approve a revised fiscal year 2005 budget.

While discussions can occur and testimony could be taken, none of those issues would be resolved with a vote if a quorum does not show up.

Reinhart said he isn't sure just why the two members -- Edgerly and William M. Johnson of Wasilla -- have now said they would not attend. However, he said he does know that many meeting expenses already have been prepaid, and notices have been sent out announcing where and when it would be held.

"It seems that by not participating, a small minority can control the outcome," he said. "If there is a hidden agenda, I don't know. But regardless, the only way to get through the agenda is for people to be there. We have plenty of work to do."

Reinhart said all members, including those intending to be absent, were afforded the opportunity to attend by teleconference. At least one of the three excused earlier has said she would attempt to attend Thursday by phone.

Perry said Monday she had granted excused absences to Edgerly and Johnson, something that is within her power as chair. Their formal requests for excused absences were only made Sept. 3, long after plans for the meeting had been set.

Johnson formally announced his intention not to attend in an e-mail sent Sept. 3.

"I have stated from the start that if everyone can't attend by phone or in person to this important meeting, it should be changed to a different date," Johnson said.

Edgerly announced his decision not to attend the same day, telling Perry by e-mail that it would be "unfair to hold a meeting without the full council membership present, especially where so many important subjects are on the agenda." Edgerly said he was not attending as an expression of "my personal stand."

Contacted late Monday, Edgerly declined further comment.

In an e-mail to board members Saturday, Perry said those requesting absences had done so according to the bylaws.

The flap over the meeting is only the latest in a string of minor dust-ups. In a way, the disagreements over procedure and policy could be seen as growing pains.

The SILC set out on its own in July 2003, adopting bylaws, setting policies and establishing protocols consistent with a nonprofit status. The organization pursued its primary function of helping people with disabilities. But instead of celebrating success, conflicts have divided the board.

In a recent memo to members, Reinhart said the board was "mired in conflict and division for what I believe is a group supporting our chair (Perry) and a group supporting me. We have a classic nonprofit chair-executive conflict and it is up to you all to decide the next course of action."

He told the board they might face a difficult choice that could involve firing him or changing chairpersons.

"The most important thing is that the will of the majority prevails," he said. "If that will was to fire me, I'd walk away tomorrow. If it is to replace the chair, that wouldn't be an issue."

Reinhart is not alone in voicing dissatisfaction with Perry. In a June 25 letter to Murkowski, the directors of all of Alaska's centers for independent living -- Jim Beck of Access Alaska Inc., Joyanna Geisler of the Kenai Peninsula Independent Living Center, Joan O'Keefe of the Southeast Independent Living Center (who also is a SILC board member) and Roger Wright Jr. of Arctic Access -- noted what they called "troubling actions" taken by Perry, saying those actions "at best violate the SILC's established financial policies and at worst give the appearance of ethical impropriety." Like Reinhart, the four said the behavior was disruptive of the council's ability to perform its duties.

Last spring, representatives of the SILC went to Washington, D.C., to attend the National Council on Independent Living conference. There, according to the letter, Perry ordered Reinhart to arrange a reception of delegates for "a family friend" who was chief financial officer of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. Reinhart complied and wrote a check for the wine and cheese affair, spending "several hundred dollars," but without the approval of the SILC's executive committee as re-quired by SILC policy.

The four also said the event was scheduled with little regard for the conference schedule with which it conflicted.

The four directors also said Perry attempted to hire an on-call Cadillac and driver for use of SILC members during the conference. The cost was to be $1,000 from the SILC budget. Since SILC members were staying at the hotel holding the conference, they saw little need for a Cadillac.

"Any off-site meetings easily were accessible by the DC Metro subway system for $1.20 each way," the directors said, adding that Perry's request had put Reinhart in the difficult position of having to risk insubordination by denying the expenditure.

Other issues raised by the four directors concerned what they said were efforts by Perry to bypass the executive committee to have the hotel expense of another attendee covered by SILC funds without approval.

The four directors told Murkowski their letter "serves as a vote of nonconfidence" in Perry's abilities and asked that she be removed from the SILC.

Perry declined comment on the directors' allegations or their request for her removal. She did say it hadn't been easy getting the nonprofit up and running, and that the board had worked hard and accomplished much to be proud of.

"The council has been very successful in putting together a state plan for the independent living program," she said.

She also said she believed things would work out once the trauma and turmoil of startup were over.

"I have faith that it will all come together and we will be able to do what we were appointed to do, which is to advocate for people with disabilities," she said.

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