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United Way firing deserves public attention it's receiving

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By GREG HAMILTON, Citrus Times Editor of Editorials

© St. Petersburg Times
published October 13, 2002


Like many people in Citrus County, I was baffled last week by a report blaming me for recent problems at the United Way of Citrus County.

My sin, apparently, was that I had pointed out that when the longtime leader of the organization was forced out just before the kickoff of the annual fundraising drive, it was a newsworthy event.

And when the people responsible for this unwarranted humiliation refuse to explain their actions not only to members of the public, who are expected to trust and contribute to the United Way, but especially to the employee, the leadership has failed in its duties.

For daring to speak up, I was scolded in print by Gerry Mulligan, a member of the United Way board of directors and publisher of the Citrus County Chronicle.

Mulligan writes that he is speaking for himself and not as a United Way board member, yet interestingly refers to "our campaign" when speaking of the fundraising drive. In the absence of a full public accounting from the United Way leadership, his version of events will have to suffice.

The smokescreen that he is trying to shroud this episode in to divert attention from the real issues goes something like this:

The forced resignation of Dawn Arline was a private matter between employee and employer (an argument that works if the employer is, say, Wal-Mart, but is ridiculous when dealing with a high-profile social service organization like the United Way.)

The ouster of a woman who has been the public face and ambassador for the United Way for 12 years should not have generated any public comment or criticism (dream on).

Questions about the board's secret actions (as opposed to those actions themselves) are putting fundraising at risk.

That Arline herself is to blame because her management style is so bad that many United Way volunteers supposedly have quit rather than deal with her any more. Hmmm. Arline has been doing the job for more than a decade and is publicly praised every year for leading the United Way to its goal. Yet, she was not allowed to address the board about her perceived deficiencies before they stuck her head in the noose. Sure, that sounds fair.

The board did not want to say anything in public because that would hurt Arline's chances of getting another job, as if forcing her to resign with a cloud of suspicion over her head would somehow enhance those chances.

The thrust of the piece was that my column had drawn a private matter into the public arena, needlessly embarrassing Arline. Had Mulligan actually spoken to Arline, as I did, he would know that she was grateful that someone was standing up for her in print.

All of this ignores the fact that people in a small community like this, people who know Dawn Arline and who have contributed generously to the United Way for years, are owed an explanation for her dismissal.

It also glossed over questions such as the timing of the action. If Arline's problems really have been known for so long, why was she forced out now, at the most important time of the year for the United Way? Why was she not allowed to present a defense? Why was she not allowed to see that eight-page letter listing her failings?

This controversy is about the way the board has dealt with a longtime employee and that focus should not be diverted by an editor trying to shield an obvious conflict of interest by playing the blame game. After all, consider the source. Being called tacky, among other things, by Mulligan is like being called ugly by an ape.

The larger issues are what this will do to the United Way and, most importantly, the member agencies.

No amount of blame-shifting or smoke blowing will obscure the need for the community, and Arline, to be told the truth about what happened.

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