Meet the Candidates, August 2, 2014
(Ed. Note: In the interest of full disclosure, I remind our readers that I have been married to Robert Lauri for nearly 20 years, I am partnered with Buz Whelan in this blog and have been good friends with him for years. Bob Leon and I share a love of communication and have worked together on the ELA communications committee and on the Facebook page, and we live so near to one another he can smell what we barbecue for dinner, and I liked Connie Simpson’s ideas enough that I supported her candidacy last year in this blog. I am in no way an unbiased reporter, but I am also all we have here at ELFP. I will attempt to simply report what the candidates said as I heard it, but cut me some slack here, and make of these relationships what you will.)
Our Meet the Candidates session began at 9:30 in the bingo room at the Community Center with four candidates and about 30 members, eager to hear what these folks have to offer our community. The candidates were (in alphabetical order): Robert Lauri, Bob Leon, Connie Simpson and Buz Whelan. Prior to the opening, members were given index cards on which to write their questions which were then handed in, sorted and read by Carol Litwienski (aka Cookie) and Joseph Olall. Each candidate was given a chance to answer, with the order of the responses rotated for each question.
All of the candidates discussed the need for improved communications throughout our community, with “transparency” being the word of the day. Robert Lauri promised to make communications the centerpiece of his tenure. He pledged to use all venues available (meetings, email, Facebook, ELFP, Emerald News) to not only inform members of what is going on, but also to listen to them. He decried the abuse of Executive Sessions by the current board and promised to put a stop to its overuse. Bob Leon discussed the differences between the web page that he created and ran for the community and the new system we have today. He called the internet a “living, breathing” entity but stated that the current webpage is dying through mismanagement and disuse. He suggested that there are many modes of communication that we haven’t even considered but should, including a private radio broadcast, handouts and even home visits to bring members the information they need to participate in the community. Connie Simpson brought up the new Terms Of Service on the ELAinc web page and said that these must be removed. She said that lack of communication causes rumors to fly and distrust to grow. Buz Whelan pledged to “shine a light” on the work of the board rather than to hide behind executive sessions (as the current board seems to do so often). He directed members to the work he has done here at Emerald Lakes Free Press, which contains an archive of information and articles about the meetings and actions of the board and the committees of ELA.
Maintenance was also a hot topic, with the roads, the dam valve, the Community Center and other parts of our infrastructure being the focus of many questions. Bob Leon pointed to other lakes in our area and suggested that we follow their lead and drain Pine Tree Lake to determine if there is actually a leak and its extent, before proceeding with expensive repairs. Connie Simpson said that the engineers and management need time to figure out the exact scope of work that needs to be done and when the cost comes back, there may be need for an assessment to complete those repairs, but that it must be done. Buz Whelan mentioned that a “collar” can pull back the water and allow the engineers to look at the dam, but that we need to move forward on this. He reminded us of the story of the little Dutch Boy who put his finger in the dyke and that “these things do not get better” with time and that we must act before the problem becomes even worse. Robert Lauri agreed and pointed to other parts of our infrastructure that also needed action, including the HVAC in the Community Center and the roads. He also pointed to the snow removal equipment that is sitting in the maintenance yard uncovered since winter ended, the unsealed cracks in the road that lead to greater repair costs each spring, and the lack of direction given to our plow operators that add to road deterioration.
Connie Simpson was the only candidate to come out solidly against the dues increase. She is not for an increase until she has a “list of where the money will go.” She is a fan of directed funds, meaning that an increase must be directed to a specific problem and only be spent on that. Buz Whelan pointed out that our finances are not a secret and are available to any member. He even offered his phone number and said he would be glad to explain the numbers to anyone. He supports the dues increase and told the audience that the “very diverse” Finance & Planning committee recommended it unanimously and the board endorsed it in a 6-0 vote (with one abstention). He said that not one of these people, who have studied this problem extensively, opposed it and so the need is clear. Robert Lauri reminded the group that the last dues increase included money to be directed to road repairs and that a separate line item was created for this purpose. For this increase, $100 will go to the reserves fund and $100 to the general operating fund. He mentioned the price of gas has more than doubled in the 13 years since he came to ELA and other prices have risen as well. ELA, he said, is not immune to these increases and the membership needs to make a choice as to what kind of community they want, but that $17 a month was not unreasonable to help our community move forward. Bob Leon supports the dues increase and would like to see some portion of the increase go to taking care of our employees. He suggested that our staff is one of our greatest assets and they need to be retained. He also pointed to the renovation of the administration building conference room as an example of money that should have been spent in the Community Center where it could have benefitted all the members rather than the few who attend meetings there.
All of the candidates support this measure and expressed dismay that it will not be on the ballot for this annual meeting. Leon, Simpson and Whelan were on the bylaws committee that proposed this change and were all unhappy at the delays by the board that kept it from going to the membership. Buz Whelan said that your vote is your most important right in this community and he proposed a special meeting, with an extended voting period over a full weekend, to present this issue to the membership and to allow as many people as possible the chance to vote.
Buz Whelan said that when we had an Association-sponsored youth program, it cost a great deal of money and was used by only a very small fraction of the families in the community. He says that the children, who are in need of supervision, the “bad” kids, will not attend such a program anyway. He does support a parent-based, self-sustaining program and believes that the board should be willing to help them create this. Robert Lauri discussed the Boy Scout Troop that he ran in Emerald Lakes. He says that there was no support from the board at all, that they were “basically thrown out of the building” during a cost cutting phase of the board. These young EL citizens were involved in EL clean up, elderly assistance for winterizing, and participated in the annual meetings. He told the group that even the plaques won by the troop for camporees and competitions were given back to him and he was told there was no place to hang them in the Community Center. He does agree with Buz that without parental involvement, any youth program is doomed to failure. Bob Leon suggested that Emerald Lakes needs a community equivalent of a school’s PTO. He says that parents could be recruited right from the bus stops. He also pointed to our communication issues as a roadblock here. When he ran the web page, it was very difficult to get any information about which groups were meeting in our Community and thus many opportunities to increase involvement were missed. Connie Simpson believes that serving the children of our community is important and would like to see the Community Center made more kid-friendly, with more after school events and a kids’ menu.
When asked if board members should have term limits, Robert Lauri said no. He referred to a baseball Hall of Famer and said, if you have a Joe Torre, why would you want to make him go away? Bob Leon was less sure about this issue. He pointed to the lack of participation in committees as the reason why some members are on many different committees. With the lack of human resources, term limits do not make sense right now, but he allowed for the possibility of a day when many people are clamoring to serve the community and, in that case, we may need term limits to give everyone who wants it a chance. Connie Simpson supports term limits and believes it will guarantee that the community gets some “fresh faces” and presumably, new ideas. Buz Whelan said that the annual elections already serve to limit the terms of people that the membership wants to remove. Limits would take the power of choice away from the membership.
“Clause 15” and membership
The “Clause 15” issue addresses the status of properties that are not legally tied to Emerald Lakes through declarations on the deed, but are located within its borders. The candidates were asked how they would approach this problem. Bob Leon sees this as an opportunity to add an additional level of membership to the community by allowing them to pay dues and use the amenities for a fee, but not become voting members. He suggests that we might consider opening some of the amenities to people outside of ELA for a fee as well, as a way to raise revenue. Connie Simpson opposes opening our amenities to non-ELA members and suggests simply offering the involved properties the opportunity to amend their deeds and become full-fledged members. She also believes that ELA identification cards should be color-coded to identify renters versus members. Buz Whelan says that the first step is to properly identify the properties without declarations and then offer them the opportunity to join, permanently. Should they choose not to join, they would not be entitled to vote and the association would bill them for services (for example, road usage and lake maintenance). Robert Lauri says that the database must be examined with a fine toothed comb and cleaned up completely. He also mentioned that enforcement, meaning policing the use of the amenities by these people, would be very difficult.
Community Center and Amenities
When asked if the bar and grill should continue to operate, Connie Simpson said yes, but that the menu should be pared down and the prices need to be considered more carefully so that it does not ever lose money. She says that there is a great chef in place and that it should be able to operate successfully. She also suggested that the name be changed to something “more friendly”. Buz Whelan reminded the audience that during his prior tenure on the board the bar and grill was budgeted to cost $40k per year and that he and Robert Lauri found that to be an unacceptable figure. They brought in a Point-Of-Sale system to track sales and control inventory and shortly thereafter the place was operating at nearly the break-even point. Now, he says, something has clearly gone wrong and it seems that no one is addressing the problem. Robert Lauri picked up this point and added that it has been an ongoing issue and he can’t understand why no one stepped in the first time a report showed a large loss. Instead, it continued month after month, with no credible explanation and no apparent action taken. He pledges to use his experience in management to not only address the proper use of the POS, but to undertake the training of the staff, and he believes that, if run properly, the Bar and Grill can become the shining centerpiece of our community. Bob Leon says that the treasurer’s reports are consistently misleading since income and expenses are reported without taking the inventory on hand into account and that this paints an unfairly negative view of the bar and grill. He also mentioned that frequent disruptions of the schedule and plans for events sabotage the possible success of this amenity; the only one we have, he points out, that actually brings in revenue.
Candidates Running from the Floor
After the written questions were asked, the floor was opened to the audience and new member Kevin Marsland asked about the possibility of candidates running for the board from the floor at the annual meeting. He wondered if the candidates believed this option should be taken away. All the candidates agreed that this option is needed, but only for special circumstances. Some believed that incumbents should be denied this option completely. Robert Lauri sees this issue as a double edged sword since all candidates should be willing to “stand up and take the bullets” at Meet the Candidates, but a grievous act could necessitate someone exercising this option. Bob Leon pointed out that, with absentee balloting, running and gaining office from the floor would be nearly impossible since votes would be cast before the meeting began. Buz Whelan explained that when he ran from the floor for his first term, there were special circumstances and he felt justified in doing so. Whelan was fired from the Emerald News because he had investigated and tried to report on what was eventually deemed a justifiable shooting in our community. He felt that the board should not be able to filter the news that reaches the membership and tried to participate in the Meet the Candidates that year, but was denied because he had not filed his intent-to-run form before the deadline set by the committee. In his case, running from the floor was not an impulsive act or an attempt to dodge questions from the membership, but a necessity due to circumstances occurring after the deadline.
Other questions from the Audience
Based on concern over the rubber-stamping of signatures on checks that allows deniability on the part of board members, Pat Galderisi asked if each candidate would be willing to provide a social security number to the bank and be willing to physically and in-person sign checks written on the ELA account. All the candidates agreed.
Darren Johnson pointed to what he believes to be inappropriate behavior of current board members and asked that the candidates take a “pledge of civility” and be willing to follow appropriate chain of command in addressing problems or issues with the staff. There was no disagreement from the candidates that board membership requires reasonable behavior, but both Robert Lauri and Buz Whelan explained that sometimes there is a need to step in and address a situation immediately, but that there are proper ways and times to do this. Whelan’s analogy was that if there is a fire, one should “pick up a hose, even if you are not a fireman.”
Citing township practices, Joseph Olall asked if the candidates would consider making public a “bill list” each month to inform the community of where money is being spent. Connie Simpson said yes, and Bob Leon agreed, with the exception of the salaries of our employees. This devolved into a general discussion of whether or not our employee salaries should be confidential, with several people stating opinions. Buz Whelan said that we should not break confidentiality with our employees in this way and Robert Lauri said he agreed with half of what Mr. Olall was suggesting, but that this level of detail would become tedious month after month. Buz Whelan also reminded the audience again that the financial details of our community are not secret and that anyone who wishes to see this information need only go to the administration office to get it.
When asked to summarize what our community really needs, Buz Whelan stated “A fresh coat of paint.” He explained that he meant this in more than just the literal sense. He says that while we (of course) need to take care of the big issues, attention must be given to the little things as well. He pointed to the new floor in the Community Center as an example of a relatively small project that brought a big change to the appearance of the building. Small renovations, upgrades and remodels, even a truckload of sand on the beach, can go a long way toward building the appearance and enjoyment of our community. He also announced that since lowering the temperature of the pool did not bring the savings that some had hoped, he now supports raising it again to 84 degrees for the comfort of the people who use it and have asked for it. Robert Lauri said that we must work on the perception of the board from the members, who see directors as a secretive, petty group that is not focused on what is best for the whole community. We need to build trust, let go of past disagreements, and create a feeling of pride in our community. He cited his work on the Community Center during his previous term, including the resolution of the issues with the Liquor Control Board, obtaining permission for private groups to use the kitchen for events, and the purchase and setup of the POS system, and said that he would like to continue this work to improve the services offered at the Community Center, which he called the “Jewel of our Community”. Bob Leon picked up on Whelan’s fresh coat of paint theme and mentioned what he called a punch list of little repairs in the CC and throughout our amenities. He wants to address the “nickel and dime repairs” that can improve the quality of our members’ experience in the Center. He also called for some additional winter recreation activities, including a sledding hill that is available in the community, but not publicized or maintained. Connie Simpson believes that what the community needs most is honesty and transparency. She says that distrust costs us money and members should not be left in the dark as to what the board is doing and why they are doing it. She agrees with the other candidates that our amenities need to be updated.
Well, there you have it. What was scheduled to be a two-and-a-half hour meeting ended after nearly four hours of questioning, and the candidates graciously and patiently stayed until everyone had a chance to voice their concerns. My fingers were cramped from taking notes and my posterior was numb from sitting for so long, but I tried to provide comprehensive coverage without being overly detailed. For those of you who could not attend, I hope this paints a clear picture of these candidates’ positions. For those of you who were there, if you feel I have left out something substantial or mischaracterized someone’s statements, please let me know in the comments section below or on our Facebook discussion page.
Finally, a special thanks to Eileen Avrich for her comments, editing and suggestions on this article. She agreed to help because my usual guys for this job (Buz Whelan and Robert Lauri) were unable to do this due to the obvious conflict.