Chamber board heeds to pressure

After firing its executive director, the Sequim-Dungeness Valley Chamber of Commerce board of directors went from 14 to two.

This was the result of a two-and-a-half hour chamber luncheon meeting at a packed Sequim Elks Lodge yesterday.

Under pressure from chamber of commerce members regarding its firing of former executive director Lee Lawrence in January, chamber president Joe Borden resigned and 11 other board members followed, leaving the executive board in disarray and the majority of its board positions unfilled.

“If you all want my personal resignation, you have it,” said board president and interim director Joe Borden, who was the first to volunteer his resignation. One by one the rest of the board members in attendance followed.

Board member Hattie Dixon was in Hawaii and Ron Gilles left the chamber meeting early.

The resignations came after a number of negative comments made by chamber members during the meeting. The board was largely criticized for its Jan. 17 decision to ask for former chamber executive director Lee Lawrence’s resignation, although many of the members also were upset with what they saw as lax process, underdeveloped by-laws and poor management of finances.

Although the board had asked Lawrence, who attended Tuesday’s meeting, to resign, he refused and eventually was terminated Jan. 18.

“It grew, but it grew largely out of our original inquiry,” said Gil Simon, co-chairman and spokesman for the Concerned Chamber Committee.

The committee, which began meeting following Lawrence’s termination, originally had asked for an explanation as to why the board had terminated him.

The board handed down a fully detailed statement on Friday, Feb. 8, as to why Lawrence was let go (see related story below), but rather than satisfy the committee’s curiosity, it seemed to raise more questions, as well as to outrage chamber members who saw the explanation as a low blow on the board’s part.

The most scathing part of the statement involved claims about “Lee Lawrence’s behavior directed at women in the community who have complained.” According to Borden, the board received five complaints regarding Lawrence’s inappropriate behavior toward females over the course of his six-month employment.

“If you had an offender like that, why wouldn’t you bring him in after the first offense?” asked chamber member Randall Tomaras.

Chamber member Dorothy Gonzalez asked that anyone who had been sexually harassed by Lawrence stand up.

“Now is the time to stand up and be strong because you are creating this division,” said Gonzalez.

No one did.

Another claim stated that the board of the Port Angeles chamber intentionally excluded Sequim from meetings because of Lawrence’s unprofessional behavior. As it turned out, the chamber did not take this position.

The information came from past president Hattie Dixon and according to Borden he did not know the names of any other organizations that barred Lawrence from meetings.

“That’s the only statement that was incorrect. Hattie Dixon gave the incorrect information, but it was just a mistake. We are just as human as you,” said Borden.

“I have a serious question,” said chamber member Michelle Wilson. “Why is Hattie in Hawaii? How convenient.”

According to Borden, Lawrence misappropriated around $1,800 in chamber funds, but Borden had no paperwork detailing this.

Chamber member John Rosaschi called for a motion to remove the current board and replace it with an interim board, but according to the chamber’s legal council, the chamber’s by-laws do not provide for the board members’ immediate removal. Instead, the members of the board of directors volunteered their resignations.

“I personally do stand by our decision that we made and it was not without a lot of lost sleep and with self-evaluation into looking into the facts, the circumstances. Many of us consider ourselves friends of Lee Lawrence and have known him for many years.” said board member Annette Hanson. “I think you need to wait until the facts come out to pass judgment on this board. We’re stepping down because we want to move forward and we want the healing to begin. We’re not admitting guilt. We’re not admitting that we made the wrong decision.”

Dixon and Gilles could not be reached for comment as to whether they also would resign.

Although there is no longer a board of directors, the chamber staff will keep the visitor’s center open.

Simon and others were planning to announce to chamber members a special meeting to nominate an interim board within the week.

Lawrence said afterward that he’s glad this recent ordeal is largely over and thanked members of the community for their support to himself, his wife and their children.

“It leaves a lasting impression on a child,” said Lawrence, speaking of his family, although he has no plans to leave the area. “I love this place, and I love the people … I was doing the best that I could. I’m just me.”

“I have a serious question. Why is Hattie in Hawaii? How convenient.”

— Michelle Wilson, chamber member

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