On Monday morning, about a dozen supporters gathered outside the Tenant Resource Center on Williamson Street to protest the firing of the nonprofit organization's longtime executive director, Brenda Konkel.
A housing attorney said she relies heavily on Konkel’s legal analysis. A former TRC client said Konkel had saved her life. All of them were mystified as to why she was fired on Friday.
They’re asking the TRC board to call a member meeting to explain, but the board does not comment on internal personnel matters, per their understanding of TRC's bylaws and constitution, said TRC board member Jordan Krieger.
Konkel said Monday she plans to appeal before a Nov. 5 deadline, but first is “seeking further clarification” as to why she was fired.
The TRC, 1202 Williamson St., provides information and education services for tenants, landlords and the homeless. Konkel has been its executive director since 1995.
On Thursday, Oct. 18, the board told Konkel to resign or she would be fired, Konkel said. She characterized this as “out of the blue” and said the board gave her little reason other than they wanted to “go in a different direction.” She said she refused to resign because she didn’t know what was going on.
Konkel went back to work last Monday and put in one more week before she was fired on Friday, Oct. 26. She’s been replaced by acting executive director Sterling T. Lynk, founder and managing director of The Mighty Purpose Project, a nonprofit development consulting firm. The board is still searching for a permanent director, Krieger said.
“We are also committed to following all policies and procedures laid out in our organization’s bylaws, as all employees and Board members are expected to. We will not discuss internal personnel matters at this time and will have no further comment for the time being,” said Pearl Foster, president of the TRC board, in a statement.
Konkel posted the news of her firing on Facebook Saturday, and her supporters have spoken up, referencing her long history of service, personal connections and knowledge of Wisconsin tenant-landlord law.
On Monday, they produced a letter with over 100 signatures opposing the firing and asking the board to hold a membership meeting to “discuss their extreme decision and the future of the Tenant Resource Center,” said Heidi Wegleitner.
Wegleitner, a longtime donor and former board president of TRC, who also works closely with the TRC in her work as a housing attorney, was “shocked and appalled” when she heard the news.
“It made me feel sick,” Wegleitner said. “That they would do this so suddenly without consulting staff and (TRC) members and people who have supported the organization for years and years is just really disappointing.”
Wegleitner, a county supervisor and treasurer for Konkel's campaign for Madison mayor, said she wasn’t aware of any potential conflict between Konkel's campaign and job at the TRC.
Tanya Cohen has relied on the TRC’s help more than once. In 2014, she received a Section 8 housing voucher and had given up hope that she’d be able to find housing in Madison’s tight housing market in the required 60 days to use it. The TRC helped her find an apartment with a “reputable” landlord in a safe neighborhood, where she’s been living ever since.
“Brenda’s the heart and soul of the Tenant Resource Center,” Cohen said. “How do you take three decades of experience and replace that?”
Erica Lopez works as a housing attorney for low-income people and relies heavily on the TRC and Konkel for her work, she said. She reads Konkel’s legal explanations on the TRC website, calling Konkel “the most knowledgeable person in landlord-tenant issues in the state, bar none.
“It’s immeasurable the amount that I’ve learned from Brenda,” Lopez said. “I don’t really see how anybody else has the knowledge or experience to be able to lead an organization the way that she does.”
Lopez called the board’s decision to fire Konkel “reckless,” pointing out that the many of the board members are new and have “no idea what it is that they’ve done.”
“No matter who they put in to replace her, is not going to be able to have the ability to lead the organization because there was no succession plan,” she said.
There are new board members, Krieger said, but there are still longstanding members.
“We do have context and information about how the TRC has been managed in the past, and we made a determination based on our collective knowledge,” he said.
Konkel has also had her critics over the years, from her political career and dealings in her capacity with TRC. She’s been criticized for her sometimes biting blogs and “negativity,” and she was a player in a contentious debate over county funding for the TRC a few years ago.
History aside, the reason for her firing remained unclear Monday. Konkel received a written explanation for her termination, which she said she can’t comment on, but said she’s “seeking further clarification” on the issues listed. Once she gets that clarification, she said she “definitely plans” to file an appeal.
Konkel said her “biggest concern” now is that the TRC could lose several new contracts, as staff are still being trained on these new contracts, and don’t yet know how to report for them, Konkel said. She's concerned the new director won’t have the “technical expertise to be able to do the things that need to be done,” she said.
“If that were the case, we would have not taken any of the personnel actions we have taken,” Krieger said, adding that the board is “confident in the abilities of Mr. Lynk,” who has previous experience as an executive director for the Madison Area Down Syndrome Society.