Chamber opens up regarding director’s dismissal

They asked for an explanation and on Friday, Feb. 8, they got it.

According to a statement sent out to all Sequim-Dungeness Valley Chamber of Commerce members, former executive director Lee Lawrence was fired because of a lack of financial responsibility and “unprofessional and inappropriate public and private comments and actions while representing the Chamber of Commerce.”

In the weeks following the Jan. 18 termination of Lawrence, there seemed one question sticking in everyone’s mind: Why?

“Lee just wasn’t the right person for the job,” said chamber president Joe Borden in a Jan. 23 article of the Sequim Gazette. Borden would not go into any more detail, however, which left some chamber members questioning the board’s actions.

“The first comment I got was, wow, we thought Lee was doing a great job,” recalled Ronald Ferre. He and 14 other chamber members decided to form a committee with the sole purpose of getting some answers.

“We’ve tried to figure out and ask the president of the board and virtually anyone on the board that we could find what happened, and we’ve been stonewalled,” said Gil Simon, a spokesman for the group. “In private conversations with board members and others who think they know the reasons, we’ve heard everything under the sun as the reason. He doesn’t get along with people, he wasn’t doing his job, misappropriation of funds through use of a credit card, failed to tell people what he was doing, etc.”

Simon says that the committee, through its own inquiries, found no rational basis for Lawrence’s termination or the way in which he was terminated.

“That’s the part, I think, that gets to us more than the lack of reason,” Simon said. “It’s the way the termination was handled. It was inelegant. It was mean-spirited. It was damaging to the person, his wife and his children. You just don’t do that unless you’re out for revenge.”

The committee had planned to demand an explanation from the board at the scheduled Feb. 12 chamber luncheon, as well as minutes from the board meeting that led to the decision to terminate Lawrence.

If there was someone in this story more tight-lipped than the chamber’s board, it was Lawrence himself, but in a Feb. 5 e-mail sent to several chamber members and Sequim residents, Lawrence broke his silence.

“Though I haven’t been out much, the people I’ve encountered have been supportive and expressed their concern for my family, which at times has been tough, especially for my wife Diane and children Erik, Kris and Annika, who are having trouble holding their heads high based on something I have no explanation to provide them,” Lawrence wrote. “On Friday, Jan. 18, two members of the chamber’s executive board came to my office with a ‘Letter of Resignation’ for me to sign. I asked what I had done to warrant this action and one replied, ‘… we don’t have to tell you anything.’ Needless to say, I refused to sign their letter.”

Lawrence’s letter and a subsequent interview with a local media source opened the floodgates. After consulting its attorneys, the chamber decided that it, too, should break its silence.

“The board originally announced this decision to the chamber membership in a short and straightforward manner with the intent to help protect the privacy of those involved,” the statement read. “Since that time, Lee Lawrence has been outspoken in e-mails and statements to others, thereby making the matter one of broad community concern.”

The statement goes on to say that the decision to ask for Lawrence’s resignation came in light of two significant problems: the misappropriation of chamber funds, such as using the chamber’s credit card for personal transactions, as well as unprofessional and inappropriate comments and actions both publicly and privately. The statement goes into specifics such as Lawrence making inappropriate comments during meetings, “Lee Lawrence’s behavior directed at women in the community who have complained,” “Lawrence’s exclusion from certain business meetings based on his inappropriate behavior” and finally, “Lee Lawrence’s continued expression of discontent not only to board members but to others in the community with his wages and desire for more compensation, although signing an employment agreement outlining his yearly salary and compensation.”

Lawrence declined to speak with the Sequim Gazette regarding the matter.

Borden was serving as interim director until an executive director is selected later this year.

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