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Mobtown Beat

Boardroom Blitz?

Michael Sarbanes Tapped to Lead CPHA Amid Claims of a Rushed Hiring Process

By Brennen Jensen | Posted 1/22/2003

On the evening of Jan. 9, the board of the Citizens Planning and Housing Association (CPHA) voted 18 to 1 (with one abstention) to approve the hiring of Michael Sarbanes as the organization's newest executive director. Sarbanes, son of U.S. Sen. Paul Sarbanes (D-Md.) and former deputy chief of staff for Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, is expected to take the helm of the 62-year-old community-improvement nonprofit--which finds regional solutions to transportation, housing, and drug-treatment problems--by April 1.

Although the vote outcome was a landslide, veteran activist and five-year CPHA board member Ralph Moore--who cast the lone "no" vote--has resigned from the board, angered over what he perceives to have been a flawed and rushed hiring process. In an at-times volatile resignation letter e-mailed to fellow board members and select community activists, Moore, director of the St. Frances Academy Community Center, singles out CPHA board chairman Al Barry for "embarrassing and inexcusable" actions in regard to the process that led to Sarbanes' ascension.

"I've never voted to hire someone where their résumé was not even in the room and was never presented to the board," Moore says. "It was like Al [Barry] had Sarbanes' card in his vest pocket and didn't need a hiring process. And without any process, how do we know he's the best for the job?"

Barry says he was "surprised" by Moore's resignation, and that it was "unfortunate that he took that tack." Barry defends the process used to select Sarbanes, saying it was discussed with the board on a number of occasions. "It's a fundamental disagreement as to whether the board or the executive committee acted hastily," he says. "I don't think we did. [Moore] does."

Current executive director Terri Turner, hired in 2000 with the understanding that she was only prepared to make a three-year commitment to the position, informed the board last September that she planned to step down by spring 2003. Moore says, "we were all waiting for a hiring process to be announced" and expected that a "search committee would be formed." Instead, at the January board meeting Sarbanes was presented as the sole candidate, and Moore says voting transpired in a "herd mentality" atmosphere. Moore says he asked "to slow this train down a bit" so that the board could have at least one meeting with Sarbanes prior to the final vote, but he was refused.

"One of the most important things you do as a member of a nonprofit board is hire and fire executive directors," Moore says. "I can't tell you anything about Michael Sarbanes. I don't know him." Moore also feels that not considering any women or minority candidates for the position smacks of the "old-boy process" and "undermines our credibility as the guardian of process and inclusiveness and diversity."

Barry calls Moore's condemnation of Sarbanes' appointment "unfair": "[The appointment] was acceptable to the board, as [Moore] was only person who voted against him," he says. "I don't know if [Moore] had another candidate in mind he wanted to promote. If he did, he never mentioned it to me."

Barry adds that Sarbanes' name came up as "favorable candidate" during the 1999 executive director search, but that he was unavailable to take the job. In the face of perceived apathy among board members to get involved with the search, Barry says they decided to have the executive committee--himself and four other board officers--serve as a de facto search committee, a move "which we had discussed with the board." The executive committee interviewed Sarbanes in December. If there was a sense of urgency surrounding the hire, Barry attributes it to the fact that "[Sarbanes] might be receiving a number of offers as he looked for what to do after Annapolis."

"Clearly we should have done a better job of informing the board before the January board meeting," says board vice president Carolyn Boitnott. "However, I think the decision to bring Michael Sarbanes on as executive director is a very good one."

Turner, CPHA's first African-American director, says "as a woman of color I was comfortable with the selection of [Sarbanes] because he has a sensitivity to issues of diversity of race."

While hesitant to comment on the situation, Melvin Freeman, director of special projects for Greater Baltimore Committee and second-term CPHA board member, concedes that there were some "issues" surrounding the hiring process.

"But when all is said and done, the bigger loss is the loss of Ralph Moore," Freeman says, acknowledging Moore's active role within the organization. Barry laments the loss as well, saying, "We need his powerful ideas and principles and hope he stays involved."

Moore, who chaired CPHA's transportation committee and helped form the Transit Riders League to give a voice to citizens who rely on mass transit, says he plans to continue working with the league "as long as it won't be awkward to do so."

Sarbanes, meanwhile, says he hasn't seen Moore's resignation letter and "doesn't really have a good sense" of the issues raised. However, he says, "I am very excited about the job."

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