A Monday night special meeting of Tenant Resource Center members was an often contentious affair with raised voices, running almost three hours past its scheduled time.
The meeting took place a month after longtime executive director Brenda Konkel was fired by the TRC board of directors on Oct. 26., and emotions ran high as attendees questioned the decision to fire Konkel.
But in the end, after an unscheduled vote by members requested a mediation process between the TRC board, board member Jim White and Konkel agreed to meet for mediation next Monday.
"If that’s what the membership wants to do, I’m going to go into it completely open-minded and we’ll see where it goes," said White.
The TRC, 1202 Williamson St., provides information and education services for tenants, landlords and the homeless. Konkel was the executive director since 1995. A former City Council member, she announce she's running for mayor in July.
After Konkel was fired, she was 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.
The reason for Konkel’s termination has been murky for the last month, as board members said they could not comment on internal personnel matters and Konkel said she couldn’t comment on the written explanation for her termination.
That changed after the TRC board rejected Konkel’s appeal of her termination. The board sent out a press release Friday, Nov. 23, citing “a review of the organization’s financial position” for Konkel’s termination.
It said that in the last year, TRC had bounced payments to its payroll company, approved numerous transactions without sufficient funds, been subject to “gratuitous” fees and failed to pay staff health insurance for “extended periods of time.”
Konkel disputed all of these charges. This weekend, she posted several documents on her blog detailing her version of events, including text from emails, text messages and letters between herself and TRC board members. She firmly stated that there was no “just cause” to fire her, and said she has never been disciplined.
“You have not given me an adequate chance to hear, much less address, any concerns this board might have,” she wrote in the letter appealing the board’s decision to fire her.
At her appeal hearing, Konkel wrote on her blog, “not one single shred of documentations (sic) was provided, no dates or times or specific instances that I could respond to.” At the hearing, she asked for a public apology and to be reinstated as executive director. Her appeal was denied.
THE BOARD’S SIDE
On Monday, the TRC board said that when they looked into the financials of the organization, the situation was so dire that there was no other option but to fire Konkel. Board member Michael Donnelly said the board concluded disciplinary actions would not be “a fruitful path.”
“We became aware of the financial situation and dereliction of duty on a scale that required immediate action,” Donnelly said.
Among the issues: as of Aug. 1, TRC had $26,631.10 in past due outstanding bills, and the amount of overdue bills is at $30,205.57 as of Nov. 2, the board said. The TRC was twice notified that its group health insurance policy could be terminated due to lack of payment, and currently owes $12,701. The board also detailed misuses of the line of credit and problems with insufficient funds for payroll.
The board said the change in leadership was an opportunity to put strict financial controls in place to make sure this doesn’t happen again.
Acting executive director Lynk said he was still working on fixing the cash flow problems of the organization and spoke about the need to move past the conflict, especially as tenants on the cusp of homelessness face dropping temperatures.
“We are still figuring out and untangling this mess,” he said. “We need to move forward ... If we can find a way to do that tonight, let’s do it.”
Ever since Konkel posted the news of her firing on Facebook on Oct. 27, her supporters have spoken up in her defense, referencing her long history of service, personal connections and knowledge of Wisconsin tenant-landlord law. There were over 200 signatures on a letter opposing her firing and asking the board to hold a membership meeting to discuss the matter.
Many of those supporters showed up to the meeting Monday. When the meeting was opened up for questions, audience members asked pointed questions about the board’s mistakes, at one point causing board member Joanne Brown to ask “Are you asking us to admit to mistakes for a lawsuit? Because that’s what I’m hearing.”
That comment led to a minor audience uproar, and Donnelly hastened to reassure the group.
“Part of why we are here spending this time is we want to answer our questions. We want to be transparent,” Donnelly said.
Attendees asked about the seemingly sudden nature of the termination, asking why disciplinary action was not taken before firing Konkel. Donnelly explained that there have been consistent personnel problems over the past few years at TRC, leading to a staff survey last October. Last week, Isthmus published an article with interviews of current and former employees of TRC which found conflicting views on Konkel’s leadership, with some accusing her of poor management, playing favorites with staff, manipulation and a “toxic workplace."
Donnelly said he and other board members had a conversation with Konkel in February, verbally expressing their concerns about staff turnover, but he regrets that they did not issue a written warning at that time.
“We didn’t think it would be necessary. We weren’t thinking in terms of maybe we have to dismiss somebody,” Donnelly said.
The board later discovered the financial situation was “far, far worse than any of the board members imagined it could be,” he said. This happened after two key administrative staff resigned in early October, and the board became more involved in the day-to-day operations of the TRC, Donnelly said.
On Monday, a current staff member made a motion for the board and Konkel to “engage in a confidential mediation with the goal of coming to a joint actionable resolution for the benefit of the TRC’s mission.” The motion was quickly seconded.
After a whispered conference among board members, the board decided that the motion related to personnel matters, and was thus out of order at a meeting called to discuss financial matters, but said they would meet at a separate board meeting Tuesday night to discuss a ruling on the issue.
A member then asked for an appeal of the board’s decision, which passed 14 to 11 by TRC members, who include current staff, volunteers and board members from 2017 to 2018.
When discussing the motion, it became clear that mediation wouldn't work if both parties weren't invested. Konkel and White then privately discussed the matter and announced they would enter mediation next Monday. The motion then passed by unanimous consent.
"It was heartwarming to see a large amount of community come out and support," Konkel said after the meeting. "I'm somewhat hopeful that we'll be able to resolve something to help move the TRC and staff forward."