Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Who's in charge here?

Valley entities hunt for top managers

This story was reported by Express Staff Writers Dana DuGan, Jon Duval, Sabina Dana Plasse and Terry Smith

The Wood River Valley has plenty of room at the top. Over the last several months, several public and private entities have lost their leaders, leaving a distinct gap in these organizations.

The groups range from critical public-service agencies like the Ketchum Police Department, which lost its chief in October, to cultural entities like the Sun Valley Center for the Arts, which lost its executive director the same month. Other groups now missing leaders include the Blaine County Welfare Department, the Ketchum Community Development Corp. and Big Wood Backcountry Trails.

The reasons for the departures are varied. Many directors have taken off for greener pastures, drawn out of the valley by better opportunity. Others have been forced out by a lack of funds or, in one well-publicized case, by an arrest.

At the Blaine County Welfare Department, director Eileen Rodman retired last month after 20 years.

"To fill the position won't be so hard, but to find someone as good as Eileen Rodman, that's going to be hard," said JoLynn Drage, Blaine County Clerk. "There's a lot of institutional memory."

The impact of the leadership gap is often downplayed by representatives of the groups, who say others in the organizations are able to fill the emptied shoes.

But that's not a long-term solution, a Boise State business expert said. Professor Gundars Kaupins, who chairs the Management Department at Boise State's College of Business and Economics, said organizations cannot function for long with stand-ins or committees.

"In the long term it's not going to work," Kaupins said. "Things change, the environment changes. Companies can manage, but in the long term you're going to flounder."

Since Gary Rapport's ignominious departure as executive director of the Ketchum Community Development Corp. in July, the nonprofit organization has been busy.

Neil Bradshaw, president of the CDC's board of directors, said a search for a new director is ongoing, but did not give a date for a decision. The CDC has employed a Seattle-based executive search firm to help it sift through more than 50 applications to replace Rapport, who was arrested on an old burglary charge.

"Our public relations will definitely improve once we have an executive director in place, but our initiatives and projects have not suffered during the absence," Bradshaw said.

At the forefront is a plan to build 32 affordable rental units in Ketchum. The project is dependent on federal tax-credit financing. While Bradshaw hailed the project as an example of how the CDC has moved forward without an executive director, he said a full-time leader would help such initiatives move at a quicker pace. Currently, they are being carried out by the CDC's volunteer force, which now numbers more than 60.

Another group tapping its volunteer corps to help manage a leadership gap is the Sun Valley Center for the Arts. The Ketchum-based entity lost Executive Director Sam Gappmayer in October when he left to run the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center. In his absence the group tapped former board member John Gaeddert—a community planner—to run the center as interim director.

The Center's artistic director, Kristine Poole, recently wrote to members and supporters to tell them the Center is "strong and healthy" in spite of Gappmayer's exit. But the departure came just as the group works on its goal to raise $17 million for a new building in Ketchum.

"These moments offer opportunity," Poole said. "As challenging as it is to lose an executive director, it reaffirms what we know and what we do."

Then in November, the group's performing arts director, Dan Mankin, took a new job in California.

"Among all the challenges, let's be smart, efficient and prudent," Gaeddert said. "We need to stand tall in the community."

The Center has hired a search firm for its new director and will re-evaluate the position of performing arts director.

"It's an opportunity for us to look at the job description, and how we add or take away from it," Poole said. "It's always sad to lose a major staff member."

Meanwhile, Gaeddert is working on establishing an in-house volunteer program.

"It's the core of what we do," Poole said. "The hard part is raising money."

For some groups, the loss of leaders has inspired—or forced—creativity and even a change in structure.

For the Ketchum Police Department, the exit of Chief Cory Lyman has prompted the city to re-think its relationship with the city of Sun Valley.

Lyman, who served five years in Ketchum, left the job on Oct. 17 for a position with the city of Salt Lake City.

Assistant Police Chief Mike McNeil is serving as interim chief until a permanent chief is appointed. However, Ketchum city officials are looking at other options, such as consolidation with the Sun Valley Police Department or contracting police services to the Blaine County Sheriff's Office, as was done in Bellevue almost a year ago. The idea has been discussed by the Sun Valley City Council at the suggestion of Councilman Dave Chase.

Ketchum City Council President Baird Gourlay said Ketchum police are functioning normally under McNeil's interim leadership, but new options need to be considered in times of tighter budgets.

"Let's put it this way," he said. "We don't need seven police chiefs in the valley."

In August, Big Wood Backcountry Trails Executive Director Chris Leman announced he would step down to get back to volunteer organization and field work. Leman didn't deny that financial woes were a part of the decision to leave the position mere months after being named.

"The group is going through a bit of a transition," Leman said at the time. "We've worked this spring and early summer to raise some money to fund our programs and to have a professional position for me to be the executive director. We raised some money but not enough to keep me going as the executive director."

Perhaps the most famous loss of a guiding figure is that of the Blaine County Housing Coalition, which in September saw the resignation of Director Jim Fackrell. The housing group has now gone through six executive directors in the 10 years it's been around. The housing authority still finds itself on wobbly financial legs. Fackrell's resignation came partially in response to the group's weak financial ground.

"I thought it would be foolish to sit around on my hands," he said in September.

Up at The Community School, Spanish and social studies teacher Don Cunningham is serving as Middle School dean of students, and the school's headmaster, Andy Wilkes-Jones, is serving as middle school director after Nigel Whittington left in June. One of the issues the school faces when hiring teachers and administrators to work in the Wood River Valley is the high cost of living, Wilkes-Jones said.

At least one group had good news to report: La Alianza Multicultural Center recently hired a full-time executive director, Millie Gaitán-González, for the multicultural center in Hailey. The group was helped by a one-time donation of $20,000. But the group will need to match that to keep things going. A campaign is set for 2009.

Boise State's Kaupins said the need for a leader or director goes beyond the money-raising role. Groups without a leader are less able to react to challenges, whether it be a worsening economy or internal issues.

"You're not adapting," Kaupins said. "You need a clear direction. You need someone to say what's good and what's bad."

In his classes at Boise State, Kaupins said, students learn that the No. 1 skill that top managers need is to listen to problems and redirect an institution as issues arise.

"If things are going normally and you're on cruise control, you don't need a manager," Kaupins said. "But if you're in cruise control, a machine can run the company."

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