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United Way's silence hurts at a critical time

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By GREG HAMILTON, Citrus Times Editor of Editorials

© St. Petersburg Times
published September 29, 2002

Thursday, Sept. 19 was shaping up to be a busy day for Dawn Arline.

As executive director of the United Way of Citrus County, she had just finished a presentation at a local business on behalf of the organization. Later in the day, she was scheduled to lead a fundraising rally.

The gala dinner to start the annual United Way fundraising drive was just days away and Arline had the usual last minute chores to handle. Plus, there was a deadline looming for a Federal Emergency Management Agency grant, $40,000-plus that United Way funnels to member agencies for emergency services.

Four members of the United Way board of directors showed up and told the rest of the staff to leave the office for a couple of hours. Then, they dropped their bombshell.

Arline, who had been with United Way for 12 years, executive director since 1997, was told the board no longer had confidence in her. She had to leave. Now.

She asked why and received no answer, other than a request for her resignation. The board members took her keys, told her to gather her personal belongings, and escorted her to her car.

The abrupt actions, taken just hours after a Wednesday night board meeting and mere days before the annual kickoff dinner, have left Arline and many others in Citrus County who care about her and the United Way with significant questions. To date, no answers have been offered.

In the absence of information, rumors are filling the void. This is unfair not only to Arline but to the United Way in general, including its 25 member agencies. At the most critical time of the year for United Way, a cloud now hangs over it. It is time for the board of directors to publicly clear the air.

Meeting this year's goal of $700,000 was going to be tough enough with the national economy in a free fall and businesses and employees having limited money to spare for good causes. Now, donors can be expected to wonder just what is happening with the United Way when its executive director, a woman who has been the face of the organization for more than a decade, is sacked at such a critical moment.

This action has repercussions far beyond the impact on Arline. Any fundraising shortfalls will affect the agencies' clients, people who can ill afford any loss of services.

Under Arline's direction, the local United Way has thrived for years. Certainly, she was not a one-woman show and many people have worked tirelessly with her to achieve the aims of United Way. But there is no denying the effort that Arline has given to the organization.

Last year, for example, United Way raised more than $600,000 locally. Think about that. In a county that is hardly filled with Rockefellers, and coming just after the Sept. 11 terror attacks prompted many people to divert donations from United Way to various 9/11 relief efforts, the organization still managed to have a banner year. That did not happen by accident.

If Arline's performance was so poor that 19 of 21 board members said they no longer had confidence in her ability to do the job, why was she not told about the perceived shortcomings before the board voted to boot her out of the $42,500-a-year post?

Most of the board members are business professionals, familiar with standard practices for handling personnel issues, such as formal evaluations, written warnings and perhaps probation for troubled employees. At the very least, Arline was owed due process, a chance to hear what the problems were and an opportunity to respond to her critics and their accusations.

To her credit, Arline, 58, has acknowledged some potential issues, among them a lingering health problem that has led to a need for regular pain medication. If the board members felt that this was hindering her ability to do her job, however, they had an obligation to explain their concerns to her and to help her find a way to balance her health needs with her professional responsibilities.

Instead of support, the board gave Arline the bum's rush out the door. The community has every right to be shocked at this lack of humanity from a social services network. Members of the public, as well as Arline, are also owed some answers if they are expected to contribute fully to this year's fundraising drive.

The board bluntly told Arline it no longer had confidence in her. The question now is, how much confidence should the community have in the board?

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