In September 2012, after serving on the board of the Oakridge Community Association for most of the past 16 years, after working loyally and tirelessly as an advocate for my community and after pouring thousands of hours and thousands of dollars of my own time and money into programs at the community centre I was handed an ultimatum by the Board of Directors. I could either resign or they would put me “on trial” for bad behavior.
Their evidence? A tiny sample of email, compiled by the General Manager, taken out of context and in no way representative of the thousands of emails generated during my 16 years of service to the community. Included in this sample were a few outright fabrications and several mind-bending distortions. Also included were some completely accurate selections that made it crystal clear that I disagreed with management and wanted to see some personnel changes — immediately!!
Could I have fought this petty nonsense? Sure. I could have gone through their little trial and tried to justify everything to a hostile audience whose minds were previously poisoned with gossip. But why should I? Why should a volunteer of 16 years be put on trial in the first place? Passion should be embraced, especially when it is coming from volunteers with a proven track record. Criticism should be embraced as well, especially when the goal is to improve the association and enhance community services.
I am an outspoken guy. I say what is on my mind. I don’t sugar coat things. I don’t use weasel words. This straightforward no-bullshit approach to life is what defines me. I do apologize if I sometimes offend people, but I don’t dwell on hurt feelings and I don’t allow the fear of hurting somebody’s feelings to prevent me from doing my job.
There are serious problems with how the Oakridge Community Association is being run. The problems start with the board and run all the way through the organization. On the surface, the association appears to be functional, but in fact it is completely dysfunctional when it comes to serving the community of Oakridge.
As it is today, the Oakridge Community Centre serves only two entities well: the Southland Hockey Association and the facility’s General Manager. The General Manager, of course, is served very well both in terms of compensation and working conditions. The Southland Hockey Association, meanwhile, is served reasonably well, but that is only because they are paying through the teeth for that service.
It is for this reason that I am today launching my Campaign for a Better Oakridge.
This campaign is not about getting anybody elected. I am not running for anything. I am done volunteering for my community. Been there done that — got kicked in the ass on the way out the door.
Rather, this campaign is about changing hearts and minds. It is about ideas. It is about creating awareness and provoking conversations. The Oakridge Community Centre is at the heart of our community. It is about time that people who cared about our community stood up to the people who run that place and demand that they do a better job of serving our community.
ISSUE 1 – FRATERNIZATION
It should be a hanging offence for the Board and General Manager to fraternize. By “hanging offence” I do not mean that anybody should actually be hanged, of course. I simply mean that the issue of fraternization should be taken seriously.
The General Manager of the community centre reports to the Board of Directors. This is an employee-employer relationship. Getting together for a glass of wine at the annual Christmas party or at community fundraisers is one thing. Taking weekend excursions and hanging out in the hot tub is another.
Board members who have close personal friendships with staff members should resign from the board. It is a conflict of personal interest for friends to be overseeing friends while spending somebody else’s money. It leads to a lack of critical analysis. It inflates staff wages and it eats away at the bottom line of the organization.
Fraternization is a major problem at Oakridge. When I sat on the board and looked at the faces gathered around the table I saw a bunch of friends who were hand-picked by the General Manager. As a result of this dynamic, I saw wage increases rubber stamped every year I was there in spite of the fact that there were no performance reviews and no way for dissatisfied customers to express their dissatisfaction.
ISSUE 2 – METRICS
Another major problem at Oakridge has to do with the lack of metrics. In other words, there was no way to measure whether or not our community centre was doing a good job serving our community because nearly everything was subjective. In fact, in the 16 years that I was involved the only metrics we ever discussed at length were membership numbers (which stayed flat in spite of increasing salaries) and grant money — other people’s money, which we were very good at getting.
I’m sorry folks, but there is a lot more to running a “community” centre than being good at applying for grants. If that is the only criteria against which we are measuring our General Manager, then we may as well hire a grad student. A grad student will work for a quarter of what we are paying our GM and they will know how to fill out grant applications.
In addition to measuring success, the association also needs a way to measure failures. The board needs a way to identify customers who are unhappy and find out why they are unhappy.
As most of you know, I own a store just down the street from my community centre. There is a lot of overlap between my customers and their customers. Every week last summer I had customers standing at my service counter complaining to me about the lack of service at the Oakridge Community Centre. The most common complaints were what I call service basics, the kinds of things that would kill a business that did not have the benefit of using other people’s money to stay afloat: nobody answering the phone, no staff present to serve customers, no clear indication where to spend money to get products and services.
ISSUE 3 – ACCOUNTABILITY
Finally at Oakridge, there is the issue of accountability. As some of you will have noted above, in the 16 years that I served my community, I never saw evidence of a genuine performance evaluation. Year after year after year, substantial salary increases were recommended and approved based solely on A) the amount of money that Southland Hockey Association agreed to pay in rent and B) the amount of money that federal, provincial and municipal governments agreed to give us.
The General Manager of our facility operates without effective oversight. She attends every meeting. She is present at every discussion. She surrounds herself with friends and she makes sure that she controls every aspect of the organization. In my opinion, the Board at Oakridge reports to the General Manager, not the other way around.
Rather than one overpaid General Manager who is absent and mentally disengaged for most of the summer, the community should have two managers. One should be responsible for the day-to-day operations of the facility. The other should be responsible for customer service. When one is on vacation, ill or otherwise unavailable, the other can cover for her. This is the way most community centres with arenas are run.
Having two managers (or one manager with an assistant) puts checks and balances in place that prevent any one person from becoming too powerful. It also ensures that the community cannot be held hostage by the one person who knows everything and does everything and insists on being compensated accordingly. And finally, it gives the Board a better opportunity to measure individual performance
Can our community afford this? Of course we can!! Look at what we are paying our current GM. Compare it to what other GMs are earning. There is plenty of money for two energetic young people who are familiar with computers, websites and spreadsheets. A more important question, though, is can we afford NOT to do this.
The level of customer service at Oakridge is atrocious. If you don’t believe me, come and ask the customers who stand in my store every week complaining about the fact that they can’t get anybody at Oakridge to take their money. Or, just ask me why I spent over $12,000 on court rentals in 2011/12 and why I will not be spending anything there in 2013.
JUST THE BEGINNING
My Campaign for a Better Oakridge is just beginning. I know that there are people out there who are dissatisfied with the way our community centre is managed. I know that there are people in the community who wonder why we don’t have programs like other communities. This campaign will tap into that discontent and transform it into action.
At present, the business of the Oakridge Community Centre consists of renting one sheet of ice to one major customer (Southland Hockey Association) for which one employee reaps enormous personal benefits. My campaign is about changing hearts and minds and about convincing people that we can do much more than this. If I can do that, change will become inevitable.