What Not to Do When Racism Surfaces on the Board

By Billy HathornOwn work, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link

July 14, 2017; Austin American-Statesman (Associated Press)

What exactly is a nonprofit leader to do when a highly placed board member makes a baldly racist comment in public?

John Hewa, the CEO at Pedernales Electric Cooperative, ended up resigning in May after stating publicly that his job had become impossible in the aftermath of such a statement. This past week, it was revealed that he had received $1 million to go quietly despite not having such a severance clause in his contract. We suspect that there was more than financial recompense at play here, though. The board member is still with the organization, as far as we know.

Here is the situation in brief: In November, James Oakley, a Burnet County judge, posted on social media that it was “time for a tree and a rope,” alluding to the arrest of an African American suspect in the killing of a San Antonio police officer. After a public outcry, Oakley deleted the post and made a public apology.

In January, the co-op’s board of directors voted to reprimand Oakley and demote him from his position as board vice president. But, according to Hewa, “Conditions for some…key employees in the organization have become untenable because of the conduct of the board. I have personally witnessed retaliation.”

“Employees and co-op members spoke out, and all, I believed, hoped for better days ahead…. Those of us who spoke up to support minority employees and to object to racially insensitive comments were assured that retaliation would not occur. This has not been the case. The board’s response to these matters has been inappropriate,” he said.

“My continued service as CEO has become impossible because of this situation,” Hewa said on May 15th in a regular board meeting, but before he went much further, board president Emily Pataki stopped him, saying his comments were exposing PEC to civil liability. “You aren’t going to be able to continue with this line of speech. This is not accurate. I think you know on advice of attorney, you are not supposed to be speaking on these matters.”

Well, if not him, then who?

In these reports, it does not mention that Oakley was a paid board member. According to the group’s most recent 990, which is for FY 2015, he received $37,500 annually for an estimated average of eight hours work each week. There is no indication of what his remuneration is currently, following the demotion. If Oakley had really had the best interests of this nonprofit at heart over any self-interest, he would have resigned his position with a statement acknowledging that his comments were inappropriate; instead, he has allowed the resulting upheaval to damage the organization.

We would like to point out once again, that however many silly emails you may receive making the case for nonprofit board members to be paid in order to ensure their professionalism, board payment is certainly no guarantee of that.

As a coda, we’d also like to argue that the State Commission on Judicial Conduct punted when it issued a simple reprimand, stating that the social media post cast doubt on Oakley’s ability to be impartial as a judge. At least they forced him into racial sensitivity training.—Ruth McCambridge