December 31, 2019; Journal of the San Juan Islands
When you write or edit the bylaws of your nonprofit organization, pay attention first to how those changes can be made. This important lesson in nonprofit governance may come back to haunt members of the Senior Services Council of San Juan County in Washington. They are being sued in the Superior Court of San Juan County by four of their fellow councilmembers for making changes in the governance structure of the council without membership approval.
The lawsuit contends that the council amended the organization’s Articles of Incorporation and Bylaws to terminate the membership and center power and control “among a select few.” The suit indicates that these changes violate Washington state law as well as the organization’s governing documents. Among the rights cited as wrongfully eliminated without a vote were the voting rights of senior members of the center.
What seems to have incited this lawsuit began in the spring of 2019 when the Mullis Center’s Operations Committee eliminated the prayers and recitations of the Pledge of Allegiance before senior meals three times a week. This change was met by outrage from some members of the center and a petition signed by more than 90 (and later one with over 200 signatures) that called for the recall of the three committee members who had initiated this new policy.
The petition and recall was led by senior member Minnie Knych, who said, “Rather than representing the needs and interests of the membership, you have arbitrarily begun to force your own agenda on the majority of the seniors. Under your leadership the Operations Committee ignored two petitions requesting reinstatement of the Pledge.”
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Responding to the negative publicity generated by these statements and the sense that there was a secret agenda at work in the senior center, a response was issued by previous operations committee chair Rita Weisbrod via an April letter to the editor of the Islands’ Sounder:
Our decision to eliminate this practice was made to better fulfill our mission to serve ALL seniors on San Juan Island without regard to race, color, creed, religion or national origin, gender, sexual orientation or disability. The decision does not have anything to do with religion or patriotism. We certainly do not intend to disrespect veterans or the flag.
That’s as may be, but shortcutting a more inclusive, agreed-upon process has led to suspicion and strife. The committee members find themselves in a legal battle with those they serve, and a good number of questions hang in the air as everyone searches for answers. In all of this, process and issue have blended into a bubbling stew on a too-hot stove. For any healing, all of this will likely have to be walked back quite a bit.
As governing rules, bylaws are essentially both promises and responsibilities. And though they are by no means immutable, they should never be treated with disrespect.—Carole Levine