Emotions Run High at Two Island Meetings:
Vineyard Community Services

By MANDY LOCKE

See also: Regional School Committee

Unionized mental health counselors at Martha's Vineyard Community Services hesitated this week - delaying a possible move to strike while awaiting newly-promised face to face meetings with board members of the health and human services agency.

A strained encounter at Community Service's annual board meeting Tuesday afternoon, however, suggested the time out may not last for long.

At least a dozen Island Counseling Center clinicians walked side-by-side into the Agricultural Hall Tuesday afternoon and filed into benches one row behind board members they have been demanding to talk to for months. Neither group extended a handshake or hello to the other.

The agency's auditor was center stage, dominating the hour-and-a-half long session with a power point presentation about the nonprofit's finances. He painted a picture of a well-run agency struggling to keep steep operational losses under control.

But the real drama started well before the meeting as union official Jerry Fishbein - wearing his bright gold and purple Service Employees International Union windbreaker - lobbied new board president Terry Burke for a spot on the agenda.

Ms. Burke refused, a move that prompted murmurs of disgust. "They won't allow us to speak," union negotiator Rob Doyle said as he marched to the rear of the room to report the development to those in the back.

Meanwhile, agency executive director Ned Robinson-Lynch urged Glenna Moore, an Island resident trying to videotape the meeting, to turn off her camera. Ms. Moore declined - a move that led Mr. Robinson-Lynch to call the West Tisbury police for help. Still Ms. Moore, who hoped to show her tape on MVTV, the Island's public access cable station, stood fast, ignoring an officer's request to stop recording. Finally police chief Beth Toomey arrived; but she stayed back, lingering in the lobby while the meeting - and videotaping - went on. (Mr. Robinson-Lynch said he apologized to Ms. Moore later this week for his reaction to the taping. "It was a tense evening," he said yesterday.)

A few mental health counselors and Mr. Fishbein scribbled notes from the slide show, devouring financial details about an agency that has denied union wage demands since the spring. There is a $100,000 difference between the employees' and management's idea of fair compensation.

The auditors, from BDO Siedman LLP in Boston, praised management for maintaining a trim financial operation but cautioned the board about heavy reliance on fundraising in an economically bleak climate.

Community Services finished the 2003 fiscal year, which ended June 30, with an operating loss of more than $800,000 on a budget of $5 million. Donations from the Possible Dreams Auction, the windsurfing challenge, annual appeals and a flea market and revenues from the thrift store operation in Tisbury made up the difference. While the agency's $2.7 million endowment generated about $85,000 in interest, the endowment's policy stipulates that the interest cannot be touched until the endowment reaches $5 million.

"You are effectively a break-even organization despite the amount of fundraising you do. There are not many health and human service agencies we deal with that are in a break-even situation right now," said Len Pepe, a partner with the accounting firm.

"I can't tell you the [financial] risk if you weren't able to hold the Possible Dreams auction," Mr. Pepe said. Auction proceeds from August 2002 - $388,000 - apply to the fiscal year just reported; this summer's record auction donations will apply to next year.

Operational losses have climbed over the last five years.

"If this keeps going, your fundraising will not be able to keep pace with operating losses," said Mr. Pepe.

Board member Robert Wheeler asked: "Which could mean a reduction in free services?"

"You wouldn't have any choice," said John Hopkins, another member of the auditing team. "It's almost inevitable with a health and human services agency."

Taking visual cues from agency leaders in the rear of the room, the auditing firm representatives refused questions from employees.

"Questions are just for the board of directors. These are in draft format, and it's very important that they hear this and ask questions before [the finance committee's] vote," said Mr. Pepe.

"I'm sorry, I didn't realize questions were just for the board," one counselor said aloud.

"Why's that?" asked Jane Dreeben, an ICC clinician. The financial presentation went on.

At the end of the auditor's report, Ms. Burke banged the gavel, declaring the board meeting over. A union member launched into a prepared statement after a brief arguement between Mr. Fishbein and Ms. Burke. Several board members gathered their belongings and filed out of the hall as counselor Jane Cleare began reading a statement.

"Yesterday, for the first time the agency agreed to engage in the types of off-the-record discussions involving union members and agency leaders that we have sought for months," Ms. Cleare said, raising her voice over the sound of shoes clanking on the barn's hardwood floor as one director paced across the room.

Union leadership had decided to delay giving management - as required by law - a 10-day notice of an intention to strike, she said. "We are holding off because we recognize this is a significant change, but it remains unclear how significant it is and we will not hold off for a very long time," she said.

Under terms of the agreement, two meetings - which will bring board members to a table with employees - must be held before Nov. 7. Both sides are waiving rights to file unfair labor charges during these meetings, and no formal agreements can be reached during these unofficial discussions. A federal mediator will monitor the meetings.

"While we will not be on strike in the next ten days, we fully expect to be on strike before the end of November if we are unable to resolve the dispute. After more than a year of negotiations, the next few days will be critical," Ms. Cleare concluded.

A strained round of applause - led by a handful of leaders in the medical community also attending the meeting - followed Ms. Cleare's reading of the page-long announcement.

Ten feet away, a dozen tables with places set for dinner awaited guests for the staff and volunteer recognition banquet scheduled to follow the meeting. But the union members did not stay.

Lingering on the hall's front porch after the meeting as volunteers headed inside for the dinner, a dozen counselors expressed little hope that a strike would be avoided.

"At least we know [board members will] show up [for the proposed meetings], but I'm not heartened by what I saw tonight. How could you be?" said Mr. Doyle.