STARS interim executive director wants to listen, learn and move forward
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — The board is listening, said Jeff Messinger, interim executive director of STARS — Steamboat Adaptive Recreational Sports.
“We have seen and heard and read comments from the community, volunteers and former board members,” Messinger said, after an article was published in the Jan. 26 issues of Steamboat Pilot & Today about the termination of more than 20 volunteers and the organizational concerns they tried to bring forth.
The article was followed by a series of letters to the editor describing personal experiences and primarily echoing the volunteers’ concerns, which centered on governance, excessive staff turnover, a toxic work environment and disregard for volunteer input.
Messinger acknowledged there were things in the past that could have been done differently as an organization.
“By no means are we perfect,” Messinger said. “And we are going to learn from this.”
A top priority right now for the board, Messinger said, is finding a new executive director, following the Jan. 24 resignation of Julie Taulman.
The position has been posted for about two weeks, he said, and as of Monday, they had about 65 applications and four top candidates. Five of the current board members are part of the selection committee, including Messinger.
Currently, the board has seven members, though bylaws require a minimum of nine. While acting as interim executive director, Messinger will be a nonvoting board member.
Messinger said committee members are looking “first and foremost” for leadership qualities in the new director. They are requiring five or more years of leadership and management experience and have preferred criteria for experience in nonprofits, fundraising, working with people with disabilities and knowledge of adaptive supports.
Messinger said the nonprofit has started the process of looking for new board members but are more concerned with finding the right people than finding people quickly.
Messinger emphasized the bulk of the volunteer and community concerns pertain to leadership and the board and not on “participants and what is happening every day on the mountain.” Based on STARS’ most recent participant survey, Messinger said the average score was 4.88 out of 5 points. He credits that rating to the staff and volunteers.
“The product we deliver to participants in phenomenal,” Messinger said.
There were, however, some concerns raised about “operational risk” due to a lack of staff training, continuity and number of instructors.
Messinger said the organization is not shorthanded currently in terms of volunteer hours, but they always welcome more volunteers. He called the current staff “rock stars” and said volunteers are “the face” of STARS.
He shared his own experience as a volunteer, first working with a client who had cerebral palsy. The man told Messinger he wanted to try skiing because it was the first thing on a list from his doctor of things he would never be able to do.
“I’ve been in love with the mission and what the organization stands for since then,” Messinger said. “I want to give back in any way I can, and that’s why I stood up to do this (serve as interim executive director).”
Responding to concerns
Amid public calls for more accountability from the board, Messinger said he has full confidence in the current board.
Regarding the voting off of three board members in late October 2019, Messinger said the seven current board members stand by that decision. At that time, the board’s focus was on the completion of the new STARS Ranch, Messinger said.
“We had a few board members who were not aligned with that vision,” he said “It became a distraction to the point where we as a board weren’t moving forward.”
In reference to an “email war” that involved several emails sent from anonymous accounts in mid-November, Messinger said, “It wasn’t productive.” He said he would change things if he could go back and do it over again.
Through a Nov. 20, 2019, email from STARS Program Director Mike Boone, at least 23 volunteers were informed that because of “planned actions against the better interest of the STARS mission and organization. … Your privilege to serve STARS as a volunteer has been revoked.”
Those 23 volunteers had signed their name to a Nov. 14, 2019, letter to board members raising their concerns. The five interviewed by the Pilot & Today had no knowledge of any planned actions, nor did they know anyone who did.
Messinger said Boone and Board President Gail Jensen, who accused the fired volunteers of harassing staff and contacting donors, were referring to separate emails sent to the board around Nov. 18.
At the time, Messinger said it appeared those emails came from the volunteers because the 12-page document included the Nov. 14 letter sent to the board and signed by the 23 fired volunteers.
However, it was sent from a different and anonymous email address.
After meeting with three of the fired volunteers Jan. 6, Messinger said he believed wholeheartedly they had no knowledge of who sent the longer email.
Looking back, Messinger acknowledged the board and staff should have done more to figure out who was responsible for those inflammatory emails before terminating the volunteer privileges of those who signed the initial letter to the board and were included in the second email.
In a Feb. 4 letter to the editor, the seven board members stated they “invite our former volunteers to rejoin STARS by meeting with our STARS program director, who is responsible for all volunteers and assignments.”
In a response letter to the editor on Feb. 6 from five of the volunteers identifying themselves as a leadership team for all the fired volunteers, they stated, “Now, two and a half months later, the board has invited us through the newspaper to return if we meet with the program director who fired us. We appreciate their desire to have the 20-plus volunteers return. … However, this invitation is sorely lacking in three ways.”
The letter writers said those three ways included the lack of an apology, the need for a direct invitation and the board’s failure to address the original concerns.
In his interview with the Pilot & Today on Feb. 10, Messinger said that he and Boone are working on contacting the volunteers directly and individually.
“If we have done something wrong that deserves an apology — we will by all means give that,” Messinger said.
He also said the revocation of volunteer privileges was never meant to be permanent.
Messinger said the board is holding a regular meeting Wednesday, Feb. 12, after which board members will be meeting with three people from the fired volunteers’ leadership team to address concerns. The board meeting is not open to the public.
The board has “heard the community and heard the voices loud and clear,” Messinger said.
Messinger said he has already met with some of the volunteers whose privileges were revoked, listened to their concerns and was happy to welcome them back.
He added that his door and his email are open to anyone wanting to discuss STARS.
“This isn’t going to happen overnight,” Messinger said. “But we are committed to learning more. We ask the town to hang with us — be patient and supportive as we go through this transition. We are going to get this right.”
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