At the beginning of April, the board of directors of the Sebastopol Community Cultural Center (SCCC) fired its popular executive director Cordelia Holst, precipitating a volley of harsh criticism from Holst’s many supporters, as well as threats to withdraw financial support.
In early May, the board followed up by laying off the center’s longtime administrative staff.
The community’s response to the layoffs was less dramatic, but by the end of last week, the Sebastopol Community Center’s founder Kim Camp had withdrawn from center’s advisory board, making her exit public in an open letter to the board on Saturday, May 19.
Dear SCCC Board of Directors,
It is with deep sadness that I withdraw from the Advisory Board of the SCCC. I am extremely disappointed in the recent actions of the board and no longer want to be listed as an advisory board member. I do not understand what happened with Cordelia Holst, and as far as I can tell, no reasonable explanation has been put forward. Many of us have put our hearts and souls into making the SCCC a special place, and the unexpected and cruel firing of Cordelia, as well as other staff, without notice, is unacceptable. Cordelia was beloved by the staff and community, and never given a chance to address your concerns. In my experience as the Executive Director of SCCC for 18 years, I cannot imagine such a sudden move without benefit of evaluation, consultation, mediation, or discussion. Under these circumstances, my husband, Rocky, and I will no longer be supporting the SCCC.
With a heavy heart,
It was a devastating blow.
Throughout this ordeal, the Community Center’s directors — all volunteers and longtime and well-respected members of the community — have remained silent about their actions, rebuffing requests from community members and this newspaper for explanations. (Board members include Jill McLewis, Leah Taylor, Mary Ely, Chris Anderegg, Philena Chantha, Maria Bija, Will Deeths, Barb Finley, David Turchin and Rick Williams.)
Instead, over the last two months, the board has released three carefully worded statements. The first said, basically, “Trust us” — that went over like a lead balloon. The second, seemingly written in response to the outcry of support for Holst, praised her so generously it left one wondering why she was fired in the first place, a matter still shrouded in the legal silence the board is maintaining surrounding personnel matters.
Realizing that its silence was giving rise to rumor and rampant speculation the board sent out a third update, released last week, which laid out the set of challenges that the center has been dealing with over the last year.
Two of them are familiar: the devastating flood of February 2019 severely damaged the center’s main building and the COVID-19 pandemic, which resulted in the cancellation of all events and rentals (i.e. the center’s primary source of income).
But two other items on the list were less well-known, including the following:
- “In October of 2019, our offices were met with nagging break-ins, theft and vandalism, causing unexpected disruption.”
- “Persistent financial breaches have recently attracted the attention of the Sebastopol Police Department and SCCC's attorneys. A detailed assessment of our operations is in progress. With expert guidance, we're carefully evaluating all of our systems to be certain that we've identified the extent of the loss with a plan to pursue restitution if that should become necessary.”
The latter point seemed to carry with it a distinct suggestion of financial impropriety, so Sonoma West reached out the board again and this time heard back from Roy Gattinella, a professor of public relations at Santa Rosa Junior College, whom the board has retained to help it with its relations with the press and the community. Gattinella arranged a phone interview with Sebastopol Community Cultural Center board vice president Leah Taylor.
The interview was long and almost entirely off-the-record, but it confirmed a few things that Sonoma West also had been told by others, including Holst.
- The board, including board members that came onto the board at Holst’s recommendation, voted unanimously to fire her.
- The main issue in Holst's firing was insubordination, a strangely militaristic phrase that doesn't capture what seems to have happened, which was something more like persistent missed signals, and, as a result, a growing estrangement between Holst and the members of the executive board.
- That might not have been a problem had Holst and the board not had such divergent visions of what should be done with the community center. According to Taylor, the board wanted to rebuild the community center as it was to re-establish a financial base and, after things were stabilized, wanted to launch a five-year capital campaign to do a more elaborate renovation. Taylor said Holst wanted to move directly to a grander renovation and kept pushing in that direction, in lieu of more critical immediate repairs. At the same time, Taylor said Holst proposed a renovation to create a staff break room, a proposal denied by the board. The staff went ahead anyway, purchasing numerous expensive furnishings. Holst said she wrote the center a $1,000 check to partly compensate for this, which Taylor confirms. (Holst remembers things differently and said she was working on parallel paths all along — attempting to restore the existing structure while planning for the future upgrade.)
- The question of financial losses is a sticky one. Holst herself has said the community center was the victim of a series of break-ins, thefts and threatening letters earlier this year. More recently, Taylor said two signed checks were stolen and cashed. One was altered to increase the amount. Money was taken from the safe. These are still open cases. Taylor said two of the board members have financial experience: one is a forensic accountant and one is a retired Sonoma County finance officer. Both are pouring over the center's books.
What Taylor wants people to know is this: “Everybody on the board — they're all good people. They're all good pragmatic, hardworking responsible people. And we didn't do this in haste. It was a difficult decision. We certainly didn't want to do any harm to Cordelia. We certainly knew that that there would be backlash, and we tried to take the high road.”
Taylor said the extremely negative response they have received from some community members has been hurtful.
“The Community Center is the board's priority and always has been. We don't do this for kudos, you know, or for ego. It's a service to the community,” Taylor said. “We're all working really hard to get the community center up and functioning and it would be helpful if people would be kind.”
“Everybody on the board is fighting really hard to keep the community center going, because it's an important resource for the people of Sebastopol and west county,” she said.
In the meantime, the board is moving forward with a new series on online events, including a youth talent show (see sidebar).
As for Holst, she’s ready to let go of this piece of her past.
“I am proud that throughout flood, fire and security issues I managed to keep the community center in operation and revenue coming in," she wrote to Sonoma West. "Although the community center is a special place to me, I am happy to be moving forward with my life,” she said.