stopping a fight / Senia L

May 26, 2016; NBC News

Following several years of executive turnover and the current board president taking over as interim executive director, the Community Health for Asian Americans (CHAA) in California is petitioning the county board of supervisors to end the contract between Alameda County and the mental health organization for the sake of the community.

Focused on providing behavioral health services to the Bay Area’s Asian and Pacific Islander population, members of the community and the nonprofit’s staff members delivered a seven-page letter to the board of supervisors’ meeting on Tuesday, which was attended by around 90 people.

“We respectfully request that the Alameda County Board of Supervisors to pull its $1.77 million in Behavioral Health Care Services contracts for 2016–17 and reallocate the funds to a community-based organization that has sound leadership and organizational stability on at least a temporary basis,” said a letter signed by concerned CHAA staff and management.

According to a petition, CHAA staff, clients, and community members allege that during his tenure, the current interim executive director and the board president John Jiwon Chung has:

  1. Terminated a beloved Executive Director (ED) in 2012;
  2. Removed power from the ED role, instead consolidating organizational power to himself (as both Board Chair & Interim Executive Director) and Mr. Chen Yu (Director of Finance appointed as a board member without staff knowledge);
  3. Violated California Corporations codes of ethical practices and fiduciary responsibilities for non-profit Boards including:
    1. Appointing the Director of Finance to the board in 2015, in violation of CHAA’s bylaws and posing risks to CHAAs financial controls;
    2. Inability to maintain quorum, with only 2 board members active at times;
    3. Using proxy voting in violation of AB 1233 (Silva, 2010) to gain quorum on paper; and
    4. Lack of adequate documentation of board decisions, leading to concerns that decisions have been made without a quorum
  4. Ceased communicating with the Co-Interim EDs since November 2014 despite multiple requests;
  5. Failed to fundraise for CHAA over the past 11 years; and
  6. Ignored multiple staff requests for the past 3 ½ years to engage in a participatory process for recruiting and hiring a qualified ED.

In a phone interview with NBC News, Chung denied that board decisions were made “by proxy,” meaning decisions were made without certain members at the meeting, whether or not there was a true quorum. He also denied that the bylaws were altered to specifically allow staff to occupy board seats—never mind the inherent conflict of interest in a staff member being a voting member of the board.

“This is not unusual for a nonprofit, and we’re specifically in compliance with our bylaws,” said Chung. He also said that in the ten years that the organization has been audited, there have been no problems. However, Amy Lam, the organization’s health equity program director, voiced several concerns with the leadership at CHAA that some are calling detrimental to the community and to the functioning of the organization.

“We work with eight to 10 different immigrant and refugee communities, all of whom are really concerned about this, and really, frankly, worried that if things aren’t rectified that their communities will be left out of the gap and not be able to have the services that they need,” said Lam.

Aside from the community, staff also contends Chung’s actions had direct consequences in the workplace. According to the petition, Chung allegedly “created an unsafe physical and psychological environment for staff and community members with 5 incident reports on record and staff forced to enter and leave work in groups for fear of their safety.”

The dysfunction in the CHAA workplace is evident in tangled and conflicting explanations for the turnover in the executive director position, which Chung currently fills despite also being the board president. There have been two interim co-executive directors between 2012 and 2016. Sean Kirkpatrick, who was at CHAA for 13 years, was one of the interim directors following the executive director’s removal in 2012, and the executive director hired following Kirkpatrick resigned after just three weeks in April.

“Without staff knowledge or input, the board announced a new ED on March 21st, 2016. They resigned after three weeks without communicating a clear reason for their departure,” says the petition. Lam said staff asked to be part of the recruiting process, but received “silence,” which Chung calls an “absolute mischaracterization.”

“There was a process drafted to engage staff, and the staff went ahead and appointed themselves as executive director, and the board did not take this recommendation,” said Chung. After the board’s appointed executive director resigned, Chung then made himself the interim executive director following that resignation.

Along with executive turnover, some major staff changes may have been motivated by staff’s efforts to remove Chung. Kirkpatrick was removed from his position as associate director just days after CHAA staff and community members delivered their letter to the court supervisors, according to a press release.

One of the primary worries as more staff is removed is the impact it will have on the community. This is particularly relevant for Kirkpatrick, who had been at the nonprofit for 13 years. There is a real concern how the instability within the organization will ripple through the community.

While Chung’s perspective clearly opposes the allegations made by some of the staff and community, the board of directors supports it. CHAA’s board of directors sent in their own letter to the county’s board of supervisors on May 24th, arguing against ending their contract and pulling the $1.77 million funds from the organization. According to NBC News, the board’s letter also says these human resources issues stem from a small group of dissatisfied staff members.

“We urge you not to support this attempt to undermine our organization and to bypass legitimate and established systems of bidding, award, and oversight for personal ends,” read the letter signed by the Board of Directors of CHAA. “Contrary to the rhetoric, this would be the real damage to the community, which CHAA and its board serve with care, attention, and integrity.”

As noted in the CHAA staff’s list of grievances, these issues with the leadership and board date back several years.

Meanwhile, a similar situation is currently unfolding at a sister organization, Asian Community Mental Health Services (ACMHS), also in Alameda County, California. Staff and community members there made several accusations against the organization’s executive director, including that he created a hostile work environment and used agency funds for his travel. The county’s board of supervisors was prompted by a petition in January to launch an investigative audit into the organization and found several serious issues, such as absence of a long-term financial plan and its operating deficit. The audit led the county to call for the director’s resignation.

Whether or not the CHAA case will also prompt an audit (the petition does allege Chung made some questionable use of funds) it’s clear the relationship and trust between the board and staff of this group is badly damaged. An organization torn by internal strife, resentment, and distrust is unlikely to be able to provide a thriving and healthy environment for its community. Whether or not that means the funds must be temporarily relocated to a more stable environment, the county’s board of supervisors must consider the best interests of the community.—Shafaq Hasan