Oversight is hard

Note: if you read my blog for more general policy related politics, then my apologies, but this is about insider stuff and specifically some stuff that has gone down with King County Democrats. I don't like talking about insider stuff too much because what matters is helping people not party rules and games. But "insiders" are the ones getting things done. Good insiders try to be as transparent as possible and try to bring more people inside and explain the context of what they are doing and how it helps people. The backroom is only filled with smoke if we allow it to be.

While this post is public, it is especially addressed to my fellow members in local party leadership. We cannot all stay quiet and "let the process work" while our chair maligns dedicated people in private meetings who are not present, maligns them in public and misleads the press, all while re-victimizing a staff member who would have preferred to have moved on. Unfortunately, this is not only about the staff abuse that the media will highlight, but also our leadership and oversight.

At the beginning of 2017, I became a member of the "KCDCC" – the King County Democrats Central Committee. It's an executive board made up of representatives from each of the party organizations in the many legislative districts in King County. My particular role is the "committeewoman" from the 37th LD Democrats. It's elected: the PCOs ("precinct committee officers") and members of the 37th LD organization voted on the various members of its executive board, including its representatives to the county central committee. I've certainly learned a lot. I've also done a lot of things I'd never done, including organizing political events for the party and candidates.

One thing I've been learning and re-learning, both about myself and others involved in the party organizations, is that we are all volunteers. Many of us are doing it for the first time. We have busy lives and other things going on. Many of us are committed to multiple political activities. We don't actually all know how it should work or what makes for a functional organization. I showed up because I wanted to do something to make politics more inclusive. To get more people involved. To help candidates win who would enact important policies. You know idealistic things like maybe dealing with carbon pollution. Naive. I know.

What I discovered is that I don't know fully what I'm doing. Neither do most of the people around me. Fortunately, last summer, the executive board approved the plan by the chair of the King County Democrats to hire an executive director. This would be someone who would have knowledge about running organizations, about political work and could keep the organization running and communicating as actual paid work, as opposed to the volunteer job everyone sometimes can't make time for.  Having an executive director was wonderful. If I needed to know how to get something posted to social media to advertise to volunteers or if I needed to know who to talk to about a project, I had someone I could reach out to whose job it was to answer my questions.

I sent that executive director an email last Saturday (February 5th). It was in reply to a  question to me about an event we were trying to plan. She and I needed to call people to recruit them to the event, get it advertised and so on. To my surprise, the email bounced. I quickly realized that the email bounced not because of some temporary glitch but because her email account had been disabled or removed.

I reached out to her through other channels to confirm it was not a glitch. She informed me she was no longer executive director. I don't like to pry when stuff like that happens. Political work is always precarious and people often decide to leave unexpectedly (or have that decision made for them). She carefully did not indicate if she'd been fired or left or give any reason why. Discretion in politics is important. Not blowing up organizations by creating drama is respected.

I found out Thursday that she had in fact been fired, summarily, by the chair. I did not learn this from the chair, even though she had been fired for nearly a week.

The leadership team, made up of elected officers and committee chairs (I chair a committee) had not been informed. Not even an email. The full executive board – the members elected from their legislative district organizations – had not been informed. Not even an email.

We learned of her firing because a document (link is from Seattle Times article) about an investigation by the vice chairs that had started Jan 24th into the behavior and actions of the chair was sent to the full executive board list – well over 130 people. The reason it was sent was because the chair had called an irregular meeting for the 8th. The vice chairs were unable to attend: it was short notice and  technically against the bylaws requiring 7 days notice. I have not asked the vice chairs why they decided to share their investigation before it was complete, but it is clearly inappropriate for the executive board to be making decisions at a special meeting without knowing the chair is under investigation, especially since some of the allegations involve financial impropriety. I assume the vice chairs decided it was necessary to disclose before completing their investigation – the chair had refused to cancel the meeting or meet with them before the special meeting – because otherwise the board would be acting in the dark.

But why did I learn of the firing of our staff member only on Thursday? Why did I learn of it only from the vice chairs? How can I do the work I've volunteered to do if the people I'm working with are fired and the chair doesn't inform me? How can I oversee an organization and help direct it if I am not informed in a timely fashion of the actions of the chair or other members of the leadership? In any more functional organization, the vice chairs, at a minimum, would have been consulted before action taken. They were not. The bylaws specifically require the notice and concurrence of the finance committee and treasurer. No claim has been made that the treasurer or committee were even informed.

This is an example of the chair's behavior of not communicating with his leadership team or the board as a whole. I consider his lack of notice to the board after firing critical staff to be sufficient cause to remove him. However, I believe there are more cases representing a pattern of deliberately misleading or not communicating to the board.

I do not want to litigate the specific accusations of an abusive workplace environment, except to say that I believe them. Harassment, intimidation and abuse in the workplace is completely unacceptable and we should not tolerate it, including in a mostly volunteer organization. Instead, I want to talk about how that kind of environment enables behavior that harms people and prevents us from getting stuff done. If the paid staff, who have the time and energy to pay attention to the details, are being mistreated and bullied, they cannot feel empowered to raise concerns or push back on risky decisions. An abusive environment leads to a bunker mentality where staff and volunteers concentrate on just getting immediate work done without considering larger issues. A person who is harassed and abused cannot do their best work or feel engaged or satisfied with a significant part of their life.

The firing of our executive director without notice to the board is egregious, but not the only case of the chair acting without reasonable communication. Some incidents in the past I have excused because, as noted, we are all volunteers, and in trying to do the right thing, the chair has technically broken the rules, possibly without realizing it till later. In a few cases, last year, the chair contributed unbudgeted money to candidates (from the King County Democrats) without approval of the executive board. These were all candidates who had been endorsed and likely would have been approved if the board were asked. Instead, we were told later (sometimes more than one month later) when it was noted in the financial report from the treasurer. The chair should have the ability to make small contributions to candidates without waiting for a full meeting of the board, which generally only happens once a month. The current bylaws however do not permit this. If the chair wishes to bend the rules for expediency, he would be smart to run it by his vice chairs. Unfortunately, I believe they often learned only shortly before the full board.

A pattern has occurred for the past year where I've learned about decisions, often involving money, that the chair made unilaterally without input from the vice chairs or even notice to anyone, until a monthly meeting. It is not possible to oversee a body run in this fashion, though in most cases I have seen those around me appear to approve and expenditures usually, in isolation, seem reasonable. We have learned the vice chairs believe that the chair has been routinely misusing funds. The paid staff felt intimidated and did not feel they could surface their concerns. The board receives monthly financial statements at meetings in printed form, but they are not sent out for non-attending board members to examine or to give us more time to review them. The bylaws – which I re-checked last night and learned (or re-learned)  – require that the financial statements be sent to the body in advance. In the investigation, the vice chairs found that cash flow has been managed poorly such that staff has feared they would not be paid. Our recent financial statements to the board and the chair's statements did not highlight this risk. A board of volunteers who are given very little time to examine the financials and whose chair makes assurances is easily convinced that all is well.

I don't have all the details. However, I've spoken with our treasurer, and that aside from the allegations of abusive and intimidating behavior by the chair, I believe the financial issues, barely mentioned by the chair or the media, are significant. Worse, I believe we, the executive board, have been not asking the right questions, demanding the right information and have allowed the chair to operate with less oversight than is healthy. I believe we all can do better and I call on my fellow executive board members to re-invest in the organization and to remember why we are here. We can't do what we are here to do – build a strong party with strong leaders who demand change – if we do not demand our organization be functional.

I do not believe that the current chair, Bailey Stober, is capable of running this organization with our trust and confidence given this pattern of non-communication. Regardless of the exact details of these accusations, that he felt it appropriate to fire staff and not notify the board immediately, points to an attitude of entitlement and disregard for volunteers like me to do our work. That he spends unbudgeted money without soliciting input from his leadership team or treasurer speaks to an attitude of entitlement. That we routinely do not receive financial statements in advance of meetings and that risks are glossed over indicates that the chair is uninterested in full transparency and may be attempting to hide financial impropriety. We are all volunteers, but our volunteer chair has lost my confidence. The Democrats of King County deserve far better.

I call upon Bailey Stober to resign immediately. His recent behavior in response to this investigation is deplorable, including attacking a victim in public. I feel personally betrayed. I want to move on and do the work I volunteered to do which I do not believe can happen effectively if he continues as chair. I do not believe we can afford to wait for two months, the likely minimum time it would take to complete another investigation, call a meeting and remove him by a full vote of the KCDCC. I have a lot of work in front of me and I want to focus on doing that work. I should not have to spend my time dealing with a chair that couldn't be bothered to tell me the staff member I depended on was fired.