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Free Press Article

Service Boards Heading for Train Wreck

For Warrensburg Free Press July 17, 2003

The situation involving the agencies supporting the developmentally disabled is reminiscent of a runaway train scene from an old movie. The train misses switch after switch to a safe track and hurtles headlong toward the chasm no longer spanned by the broken bridge. Agency relationships have become increasingly hostile and intransigent. It’s worth examining how the train got on this track and what can be done to prevent the disaster.

First, a bit of background. The Johnson County Board of Services (JCBS) is charged by law with providing a sheltered workshop and several other services. It is funded by a 12 cent levy and governed by a 9-member board appointed by the County Commission. The JCBS contracts with the non-profit Industrial Service Contractors, Inc (ISCi) to operate the workshop. ISCi is governed by a 9-member volunteer board composed of people with a special interest in the sheltered workshop. A few years ago, a third organization, the non-profit Advancement for the Developmentally Disabled (ADD) was formed to provide professional staff and management services and to secure grants. ADD is governed by a board composed of the other two boards and is run by an Executive Committee composed of 3 members of the each of the other boards. All three boards are subject to the Missouri Sunshine Law, which provides for open meetings and public access to most records.

Until fairly recently, the JCBS board as well as the ISCi board was dominated by individuals who appeared to see their primary role as advocates for the developmentally disabled. When the levy doubled a few years ago, the County Commission began appointing members who put more emphasis on the financial oversight and public accountability roles of the JCBS. The current train began rolling last year when an expansion of the sheltered workshop was proposed after several new JCBS members had joined an existing board minority. At the September 17, 2002, meeting they would not support bidding out an expansion without detailed specifications and cost estimates; they were subjected to a verbal diatribe from one of the ISCi leaders.

The “oversight” faction has gained strength on the JCBS and has demanded stronger financial controls. These included such basic controls as 2-signature checks, a review of expenditures, and accurate financial reports. As part of the effort to gain financial control, a coordinated audit of the three boards was requested; ISCi and ADD have significant other grant and contract income. New contracts for 2003 were not written pending audit results; existing contracts were extended for short periods. Final audit results are not yet available.

The new JCBS majority began to question the propriety of serving on the board of an organization (ADD) that entered into contracts with the JCBS. It seemed to be a conflict of interest, an opinion supported by legal advice obtained by the board. In a related issue, these members also questioned whether the JCBS should share an Executive Director employed by their contractor, ADD. The third area of concern was the need to enhance the contracts to more fully specify services and include performance criteria.

The JCBS began shoveling in the coal on the runaway train at the June 24, 2003 meeting. The first shovelful was when the JCBS majority voted to withdraw from membership in ADD effective September 1. At the same time, they offered ADD and ISCi an additional 4 month extension on the 2002 contracts past their June 30th expiration. The second shovelful was a vote to prepare a job description and begin a search for their own administrator. The third shovelful was the vote to rewrite the contract specifications to allow the potential of obtaining competitive bids in the future.

The Executive Committee of the ADD responded on June 29th by figuratively releasing the brakes; they refused to accept the contract extensions for family support, community support and management support. ADD continued to provide the family support and community support services out of its own resources, but cut off the JCBS from the administrative and management services. The then-President of the JCBS, as a member of the ADD Executive Committee, voted to reject the contract extensions, then resigned from the JCBS.

At a special meeting on July 10th, the JCBS voted to offer to renew the 2002 family support and community support contracts for the rest of 2003, but rejected a motion to offer an extension of the management services contract. Instead, the JCBS approved a “coordinator” job description with only cursory discussion of the amount of work involved or the overall cost to the board. JCBS member Mike Hodges resigned prior to any votes and suggested that the “coordinator” job hire was already rumored to be settled.

It is not unusual for people with specific interests or agendas to serve on public or private charitable boards. It is boards composed of people with purely civic or altruistic motives that fail in their oversight duties, leading to such debacles as the CASA collapse. True or not, if an organization responsible for public funds is reluctant to furnish financial details, the public will naturally presume that something is being hidden. This reluctance to furnish financial details is the basis for the JCBS distrust of ADD management and is at the core of its effort to gain control of its own administration. As each attempt to improve financial oversight has been rebuffed or stonewalled, the JCBS has been accused of endangering care for the developmentally disabled. In each case the JCBS majority’s reaction has become more radical.

The recent actions of the ADD Executive Committee prove the validity of the JCBS concern that ADD membership is a conflict of interest, when the JCBS then-president voted against the interest of JCBS. It is also obvious that the JCBS needs to have its own dedicated management support, since it has no independent means to monitor the compliance of the ADD director whose primary loyalty must remain with his primary employer, ADD. The timing of the move is unfortunate and perhaps hasty and may eventually cause a difficulties in providing the services (the train wreck).

The JCBS is responsible to the taxpayers and to the program clients; the ADD board is responsible to its funding sources, including the JCBS, and to the same program clients. There is no reason why the JCBS withdrawal from the ADD should preclude the JCBS and the ADD/ISCi boards from setting up joint working groups or committees in order to achieve mutual goals. Both groups will have to overcome the mutual distrust and antagonism that now exists.

The JCBS has made an offer; the next opportunity to slow the train belongs to the ADD.

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