Intimidation, suppression, and fear of reprisals. Are we talking North Korea? Chile under Pinochet, perhaps? Guess again. According to inside sources speaking at what they believe is great risk to their standing, that's the current environment at the Saints, Chicago's unique all-volunteer performing-arts support group—source of all those polite, penguin-uniformed ushers who keep things moving at thousands of performances in practically every nonprofit theater in the Chicago area. What they describe is a bitter battle among the directors on the Saints' board, with the party in power shutting down dissent.
The Saints, now about 1,900 strong, is full of folks who love theater and are fiercely devoted to the organization, which allows them to enjoy free shows in exchange for their labor. Those opening up about problems say they're only doing it because the group's future is on the line. Chief among them is 24-year Saint and two-term board member Deborah Granite, who sent an e-mail to 65 Saints leaders (board members, committee chairs, and the coordinators responsible for assigning ushers) on June 2, offering what sound to me like pretty reasonable suggestions to improve the organization—things like open board meetings with Q & A periods and the timely posting of agendas and minutes. The board responded by voting her out of the organization a week later.
In an announcement to the coordinators, board president B.J. Nelson said Granite had violated the organization's privileged information rule. Her transgression? She used e-mail addresses listed in the Saints newsletter, The Spotlight.
Granite says that what's at stake here is "transparency, democracy, and freedom of speech." Board member and former treasurer James Venskus agrees. At the Saints now, he says, "most people are afraid to say anything."
The Saints—which has no paid staff, runs on an annual budget of about $100,000, and has grown rapidly in recent years, thanks in part to Granite's work as membership chair—is grappling with questions like how and how fast its money should be spent. And its financial record-keeping had become so confusing, Venskus says, that they were still working on standardizing it when the fiscal year ended May 31. But the issues Granite says are critical right now came to a head last spring, when board members and coordinators were asked to sign a confidentiality agreement that was surprisingly different from the one they'd signed in previous years.
The old agreement was limited to protecting membership information. Nobody wanted members' names and addresses showing up on direct-mail advertising lists, for example. But the new agreement is broader and vaguer, covering "a variety of information about the Saints organization" and unspecified "privileged means of communication." Both Granite and Venskus refused to sign. Venskus says he thinks the new agreement is so vague as to be "unenforceable." When they wouldn't capitulate, the board relieved Granite of her assignment as coordinator for Lifeline Theatre and replaced her as membership chair; Venskus was replaced as treasurer.
In March, Saints secretary Andy Lingras presented the board with the final draft of a bylaws revision they'd been debating for months. Granite says the old bylaws ceded too much power to the board, and "these new ones were worse." They wiped out all standing committees, for instance, and gave the board the power to create new classes of membership. They also set the quorum for general meetings at a mere 50 members. The proposed bylaws were approved by the board in a split vote, with then-president Hugh Spencer breaking the tie, and were offered at a general meeting that Venskus says lacked the 10-percent-of-membership quorum that was then required. There again they were approved by a one-vote margin.
Former board member and attorney Charlotte Ziporyn was out of town for the general meeting, but e-mailed a few other Saints members before she left saying that in her opinion the proposed bylaws needed more work. For that, the board suspended her membership for the rest of the fiscal year and removed her name from the list of candidates for a board seat in the most recent election.
Candidates in that election were not allowed to campaign—only to post a 150-word statement in The Spotlight. Granite's statement pledged support for things like term limits and open bidding for contracts, and she was reelected, coming in fourth among 11 candidates for seven seats. She says she was looking forward to her first meeting with the new board when she sent out her list of suggestions, and was shocked to get to the meeting and find that the first item on the agenda was her expulsion.
On July 27 Granite sent the board a letter advising them that she still considers herself a board member because the meeting at which they booted her was never announced to the membership, the agenda for that meeting was kept under wraps, and only a vote of the membership can remove her from the board. She gave them until July 31 to respond, adding that she was "prepared to seek legal counsel." At press time, she still hadn't received a reply, and she's looking for a lawyer. Meanwhile, she's launched a blog, saintsushers.blogspot.com, where you can read the letter that got her sacked.
Other members, including those afraid to go public, say they've requested minutes of recent board meetings but have waited a month or more without response. If they want to attend a board meeting, they have to get the president's permission. As of this month, says Venskus, no regular records will be kept as to how any individual board member votes, so it'll be hard to judge their performance. And although the Saints Web site is set up for a membership forum, it has none.
Saints president Nelson stated by e-mail, "Deborah Granite was responsible for a serious violation of the Saints rules. When questioned about this, she was defiant, showed no remorse and insisted that she had done nothing wrong. No member of the organization is above its rules. Members of the Board of Directors, the Saints governing body, are fully aware of all Saints rules. When a Board member violates the rules, and violates them in a defiant manner showing no remorse, it is an even more serious issue and as a result deserves the strictest of consequences. Guided by the foregoing, the Board revoked Deborah Granite's membership in the Saints and banned her from the Saints organization."