Nearly five months after more than 60 volunteers at the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden stopped working to protest financial mismanagement and a perceived lack of transparency, the strike continues with no resolution in sight. The volunteers say that, despite a handful of promises from the garden’s Board of Trustees, there’s been essentially zero progress made to address their concerns. And at a board meeting scheduled for September 17, the trustees may vote to alter a number of bylaws related to term limits, emergency meetings, and number of members. Volunteers fear the move will only make the already tight-lipped board more secretive and less accountable to outside concerns.
“We weren’t going to ask them to move a mountain,” said Bill Lewis, an organizer of the strike, explaining that most of the volunteers’ demands submitted last April were merely requests for trustees to follow the bylaws, “but they’ve stonewalled us.” Lewis admitted that it would have been easy for the board to “placate” the volunteers early on with symbolic actions, but that the trustees-led by board chair Fife Symington, member and attorney Gary Robinson, and member Bill Koonce-immediately took the volunteers’ concerns off the table. Although the board eventually promised to release financial records, start publishing board meeting minutes, and get two volunteers onto the board by September, Lewis said that the 2008 salary reports are still hidden, no minutes have been released except for heavily edited ones from July that mention this week’s possible by-law changes, and that no volunteers have been added to the board, despite a number of qualified candidates being suggested. Those candidates, Lewis and the volunteers later learned, were “summarily rejected” because they had ties to the striking volunteers.
Instead, volunteer leader Christine Riesenfeld heard that the board had voted at the July meeting to essentially “axe” the volunteers. Similar sentiments were relayed in an August letter from the board to the volunteers that was anonymously published on the community Web site edhat.com. “Frankly, we see little benefit in continuing a dialog with your group,” explained the letter, which is signed by Symington and Robinson. “Each volunteer needs to make up his or her own mind as to whether to return to the garden. After four months of not volunteering any time to the garden, we are hard pressed to see how anyone can still call oneself a volunteer. This has been a very disappointing experience for all involved. We regret that we were not able to reach some agreement with your group, but we must now focus on the future of the Garden-not the past.” Confirmed Botanic Garden spokesperson Nancy Johnson on Tuesday, “We have sent a letter to the volunteers participating in the moratorium asking each to make his/her individual decision about returning to the garden.”
While the volunteers believe the board has been overtaken by Symington and Robinson -who reportedly work closely with controversial and high-paid executive director Edward Schneider, whom at least 35 of the striking volunteers want fired-they are now finding support from at least one trustee. “I’m heartsick from the way our volunteers have been dealt with,” said board member Karen Davidson on Tuesday. However, Davidson is “seriously considering resigning” on Thursday because she feels her opinions are ignored.
Johnson would not discuss specifics of the Thursday meeting. “We really don’t discuss board proceedings,” said the garden’s spokesperson. “However, I will say that it is certainly normal for the board to review its bylaws from time to time.”
With schoolkids coming back to the garden and some volunteers wanting to return to work despite their lingering concerns-though returning volunteers must now be interviewed by the executive director-Lewis said that the strike is “coming to a tipping point.” There is talk of inviting the general public into the strike debate. That way, those who want to return to volunteering can do so while others concerned about the garden but not volunteers can have their voices heard.