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 UOC committee member responds to recent news reports and commentaries

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To the editor:

After reading the some of the recent coverage on what is being referred to as the UOC – specifically Mr. Tackett's article this past weekend – I felt compelled to respond and publicly attach my name as one of the proponents. I also wanted to clarify some points that I'm not sure have been conveyed accurately in my opinion.

I thought it would be helpful to start with what precipitated the discussions to begin with. In fact, initial casual discussions were had over two years ago when conducting the exit interviews for the Economic Development Partnership's (EDP) then executive director. At that time I was the president of the Chamber and an EDP board member. Four other members of the EDP board (none with ties to the Chamber) were also part of the exit interview and at least aware of, if not part of these high level discussions. One concern at that time was that EDP's resources were very focused on one person - the executive director. For the organization to experience the success we envisioned we would need a very talented person in that position. Furthermore, if the organization were to be as successful as we hoped, that individual's talents would be constantly on display to many other companies and communities - many of which would have more resources than our EDP. Ultimately, some of us were concerned that the structure of the EDP risked a high turnover rate for successful executive directors. One thought was that combining EDP and Chamber efforts may provide some redundancy and staff efficiencies to mitigate some of that turnover risk. However, those very high level talks of combining organizations ultimately went nowhere beyond those casual discussions.

Now we fast forward a year and a half. EDP had just finished their first round of interviews to hire a new director for the third time in three years - and having not been satisfied with the candidates were preparing to re-post the job opening to start the process over again. This was around the same time the Kelly McEvers’ NPR piece that was not very flattering to Lincoln caused a bit of an uproar in the community. As I sat at the now crowded “We Are Lincoln” meeting at the Rec Center with a long-time member of the EDP board we started to discuss the challenges at EDP and whether we should rekindle discussions about the pros and cons of combining organizations. Coincidentally, Tourism was also at a crossroads at that time. We talked to Mayor Snyder that night and collectively started to reach out to Andy Anderson with Tourism and the Logan County Board, Chuck Ruben with the County Board, Bob Pharis and Vic Martinek of EDP, Bill Hoagland and Tracy Welch from Main St. Lincoln, Tom O'Donohue with Tourism and the Lincoln City Council, and Andi Hake, Joe Ryan, and Corey Leonard with the Chamber.

The general consensus at that time was that it was worth exploring what efficiencies could be gained by combining the Chamber, EDP, Main St., and Tourism. It could be noted that EDP and Tourism actually started as Chamber committees that were basically spun off, but it probably serves no purpose to go down that road… At any rate, the thinking was that there was some overlap in each organization's mission, a combined staff could help each organization work more efficiently within tight budget constraints, and each organization had fairly large boards with overlap between those boards. But most of all, we felt it would be beneficial to make sure all of these entities were marching to the same beat. Especially with two of the four organizations currently looking for executive directors, now was the time to really consider how the organizations are structured to serve their members and the community at large.

The four organizations plus the county board and the city of Lincoln agreed to hire a consultant to help them through the process in an effort to maintain a level of fairness and objectivity. Further, we were concerned that there would be challenges with the perception of this as a fair and open process and hoped having a non-biased consultant would alleviate some of that. With EDP and tourism in limbo in terms of hiring a director, we wanted to act expeditiously. As such, rather than engaging in a publicity campaign we wanted to bring in the key people from each organization - hoping that if those key people see the open process and buy in to the idea that they will be able to act as advocates to explain the benefits to other key people in the community. Given the needs of EDP and tourism combined with the fact that dragging things out seems to make meaningful outcomes less likely, we set a timeline of 90 days to take action.

Over the next 90 days the city of Lincoln, the county board, the Chamber, EDP, Main St. and Tourism delegated people to participate in information gathering sessions with the consultant. This group of individuals plus a few more added later came to be known as the Unified Organization Committee (UOC). The end result of the process was the consultant recommending combining the four organizations under the Chamber, but governed by a completely restructured, leaner, competency-based board of seven people.

The UOC then got back together with the consultant at the end of June to finalize an action plan to move forward. Again each organization was given the opportunity to have delegates participate in this planning process and help talk through any differences of opinion while in one room together. One of the toughest issues this group faced was how to select the board of directors for the new organization. Much has been made of the decision to base part of the voting on the revenues contributed to the new organization. In reality, the group decided to make the voting a hybrid model, similar to the way we elect congress. Some of the votes were to be awarded to each city, village, etc. in the county and the rest was to be allocated based on revenue contributions to the new organization. Part of the thinking there was that the revenue was partially indicative of the depth of programs that could be carried over by each respective organization and continue under the new organization (i.e. Art and Balloon festival, Leadership Academy, Workforce readiness expo, etc.). There is no perfect way to structure the voting, but the consensus in the room that day was that this hybrid model was the most fair and beneficial to all involved. I think it is also important to point out that while the organizations can choose who casts their votes, it is expected that the individuals they choose would have the freedom to vote their conscience and not simply cast votes down a “party line.”

[to top of second column in this letter]

Before I go further, I want to present my disagreement over the amount of input solicited from the two organizations that voted against supporting the UOC, the county board and EDP.

Regarding the county board, they were welcome to provide as many people as they wished to participate in the process. I believe the open meetings act led them to only delegate two board members as participants, Jan Schumacher and Andy Anderson. Again, my understanding is that the county board decided how to structure their representation during the process. One concern I read was that one county board member asked some questions of the Chamber Executive Director which he felt were not addressed in a timely manner. I don't know where that breakdown occurred or why - and I understand that it could be hard to get the answers some were looking for in this situation. But I also understand that all of the members of the UOC were busy professionals spending significant time on the process. Couldn't that member have also solicited this information from his fellow county board members that were part of the UOC if he had concerns? The county board presumably delegated members to the process to represent their interests and answer questions and concerns they had. Further, I think it is telling that both members of the county board that were delegated to the UOC and fully participated in the face-to-face discussions voted in favor of supporting the UOC. Frankly, I think the board voting against supporting the UOC despite unanimous support from the individuals they delegated to participate fully in the process demonstrates that maybe some members had some preconceived notions – and ultimately says more about how their own board functions (and less about the validity of the UOC).

Even more confusing to me is the claim that EDP was not fairly represented. I recall 14 people plus the consultant participating in the two day session at the end of June. Of those 14, six were on the EDP board, one was the acting EDP executive director, and another was a county resident that was invited by the president of the EDP. That makes 8 of the 14 people in the room having ties to EDP - and 5 of those 8 had no ties to any organization involved besides EDP. In addition, the county resident that was invited by EDP seemed to garner as much respect and influence with the group as anyone in the room - and deservedly so; he was very insightful and pragmatic and offered a fresh new perspective to the process.

One of the outcomes of that June session was a nominating committee to solicit, evaluate, and narrow down the board applicants before the voting even takes place. There are 5 members of the nominating committee: 3 of the 5 were members of the UOC that participated in the two day session and 2 of the 5 were chosen from outside the UOC. Again, 8 of the 14 people voting on the nominating committee members had ties to EDP - more than any other organization. And of the two non-UOC members chosen to be on the nominating committee, one was suggested by the president of EDP and the other was suggested by the county resident invited by the president of EDP. One could easily argue that EDP actually had the most influence in choosing the nominating committee that will narrow down the field of board applicants before any voting ever even takes place.

But I guess those facts could get in the way of a good story.

Maybe we need to talk about the elephant in the room – somehow, much of this has become personal. The UOC communicated in a unified way by putting out press releases, which is pretty standard procedure. The Chamber board, Main St. board, and Tourism board all voted for this – and I do not recall seeing much reporting on those votes. But for some reason, it was newsworthy when one of the organizations (EDP) voted against it. And of course, there was adequate reporting of the discussion and voting at the city and county level – as there should be. But I find it interesting that many of the people I’ve seen quoted in the paper have not-so-secret personal issues with some of the individuals leading some of the organizations and entities involved. Let’s be honest, don’t you think this is really the heart of the issue here? At the start, I was naďve enough to think more people would be able to put their personal issues and biases aside and proceed based on the facts, working together, and trusting that we all really just want what’s best for the community. But those things can only be overcome when everyone fully participates in good faith and is resolved to come together in the end.

We face many challenges as a community - and there are no perfect solutions to those challenges. Certainly some questions remain. Specifically, I think the questions brought up in regard to public funding and accountability need to be addressed as we move forward in the process. Ultimately, my view is that we need to set up the organization to perform up to the standards that will benefit everyone and the accountability will be in that the organization needs to continually justify the funding through activities and results. Additionally, the new organization will have to structure itself in a way that allows it to transform and still fulfill its mission if the public funding is lost. But those are issues that we already face with the current structure as well. How many times in the last decade has EDP funding been challenged? And while we did not exit the process as unified as we wanted, we are still moving in the right direction - and are still more unified than we were before we started the process.

I firmly believe that forming this new organization is a step in the right direction. In fact, I think even some of the "opponents" would agree that the structure has potential if we can just work through what I believe largely boils down to personal differences in many instances. As for the next steps, we plan to proceed just as we originally intended. Hopefully, over time all organizations will come together. But in the meantime the nominating committee will continue as structured, and we will proceed with building a board that is intended to enhance the entire Logan County community.

Eric Graue

[Posted August 15, 2014]

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