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Facing criticism, longtime president says he’ll quit to save nonprofit social service agency

After months of turmoil, there soon may be a changing of the guard at Philomath Community Services, a nonprofit umbrella organization that provides food, clothing and other assistance to hundreds of needy area residents through five separate agencies.

Board President Jeff Lamb, who has been the target of allegations regarding dictatorial behavior, verbal abuse and financial impropriety, still insists that those claims are untrue. But in an interview on Friday, he also said he plans to resign from the board to help heal the rift within the organization.

“I’m going to be leaving,” he said. “I’m going to be stepping down in the next few months.”

Elections of new board members and officers are scheduled for Sunday afternoon, following an annual open house at Philomath Community Services. Lamb said he intends to stand for re-election with the understanding that he would then work toward transitioning his responsibilities to a president-elect, who also would be chosen at the meeting.

He said he expects to leave the board on or before July 1.

Five new members are expected to be added to the board at Sunday’s meeting, but at least one other longtime member said he plans to join Lamb in stepping down. Don Gist, serving as vice president, said he’s had enough of the conflict that has roiled Philomath Community Services and overshadowed its charitable work.

“This is a thankless job,” he said. “I wish I’d been out of here three months ago, before this all started.”

Gist said he plans to stay on until after a scheduled workshop for board members in January. The only reason he’s stayed this long, he said, is to help maintain organizational stability until new board members can take over.

“This is a mess, and it’s got to be cleaned up,” Gist said, “and people resigning doesn’t get things cleaned up.”

Several board members have quit in recent months. Peggy Clark, one of Lamb’s detractors, was voted off by a majority of the members, who said she was not “a team player.”

The conflict erupted into public view on Oct. 4, when a number of PCS program managers and volunteers held an open meeting at Philomath City Hall to air their grievances.

Carey Oien, the manager of June’s Kids Kloset, announced her resignation and said she no longer could work with the current board. She and others present accused board members of excluding them from meetings and ignoring their concerns, putting much of the blame on Lamb and demanding that he step down.

Clark, who also was present, circulated a petition calling on the entire board to step down, which garnered 41 signatures.

Lamb and Gist say the board never excluded program managers, who are considered nonvoting board members under the PCS bylaws, and insist the board tried to respond to their complaints, offering to discuss them at a meeting in late September.

“No one came to that meeting,” Gist said. “They didn’t want to have a conversation about it.”

They also question the validity of the petition, saying some people signed thinking it was simply an attendance sheet.

But the important thing now, they agree, is to end the controversy to avoid further damage to Philomath Community Services.

“This is a real hard deal for me,” Lamb admitted, noting that he’s been president for six years and has been associated with Philomath Community Services since the organization began as a free-standing food bank in 1978.

“But the work PCS does, and everything I’ve tried to accomplish (there), is bigger than anybody.”

He said the board already has begun working to implement some of the recommendations of a local consulting firm hired to evaluate the situation. After interviewing 16 current and former board members and program managers, Cheryl R. Good & Associates ascribed much of the trouble to the normal “growing pains” of an organization in transition.

The firm delivered a 12-page report outlining numerous suggestions for improvement, including three near-term priorities:

• Create a transition plan that modifies the composition of the board. The report suggested a nine-member board with staggered three-year terms, so that three seats would be up for election each year. It also called for some sort of term limits.

• Revise the board’s meeting and decision-making procedures. The board was urged to adopt formal procedures for running meetings and making decisions and to limit the use of executive sessions.

• Design financial systems that improve transparency and accountability. Suggestions included hiring a paid part-time bookkeeper, arranging for periodic audits by an accountant, and formalizing cash-handling, check-writing and contracting procedures.

More long-term recommendations included drawing up a code of conduct that outlines clear expectations for the behavior of volunteers, program managers and board members, as well as creating a formal procedure for addressing grievances.

Meanwhile, the state Department of Justice has weighed in on the controversy, urging Philomath Community Services to resolve its internal disputes before its charitable mission is compromised.

Kirk Harvey, the chief investigator for the department’s charitable activities section, sent a letter to the PCS board in early November. Harvey said his office had received “several inquiries” regarding strained relations between the board and its program managers.

He also said the board had received allegations that Lamb had verbally intimidated a volunteer on at least one occasion, that donor-restricted funds had been used for other PCS purposes and that some account balances were lower than expected.

Contacted by the Gazette-Times, a Justice Department spokesman declined to provide any details of the allegations, saying the investigation was ongoing.

Lamb denied all three claims on Friday.

The letter does not threaten any specific action against Philomath Community Services but says the Justice Department plans to continue monitoring the situation.

“This dispute causes us serious concerns about PCS’s future, its ability to continue to attract public support and its ability to fulfill its charitable purpose generally,” Harvey wrote. “This situation merits the board’s immediate attention.”

Contact reporter Bennett Hall at bennett.hall@gazettetimes.com or 541-758-9529.

Reporter Bennett Hall can be contacted at 541-758-9529 or bennett.hall@gazettetimes.com.

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Special Projects Editor

Special Projects Editor, Corvallis Gazette-Times and Albany Democrat-Herald

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