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Civic Skinny

Herrington was fired at an illegal meeting

3/6/2013

Maybe the board of Iowa Public Radio could have screwed things up more when it met and fired IPR chief executive Mary Grace Herrington last week, but it’s hard to see how.

As starters, it was an illegal meeting.

As enders, one of the seven directors broke a confidentiality agreement within minutes of making it.

In between, Herrington was tossed out with too little grace and too much fanfare.

Mary Grace Herrington is a buttoned-down businesswoman who is terrific at raising money, very good at developing and implementing a strategy, and quite capable at dealing with the community. But she waits too long to fire malcontents, is less than beloved by the staff, and, clearly, doesn’t know how to manage up — to keep her board happy and to pretend, at least, to listen to them when they complain about their favorite program being moved or other things that aren’t really board issues.

And it probably didn’t help her that the board chair is Kay Runge, the former Des Moines librarian who is as loud and brash as Herrington is calm and methodical. It’s not a match made in heaven.

Now, the news:

Last Tuesday, with less than 24 hours’ notice — that was perhaps illegal — the board went into closed session at its regular bi-monthly meeting to discuss a “cultural survey report.” That alone is not sufficient reason for a closed session; it is not covered by any of the 11 exceptions to the law. Nevertheless, Herrington and the staff were asked to leave. In fact, the session clearly was to discuss Herrington’s performance in relation to a report on the “culture” of IPR that the board had commissioned from The Mevyn Group, a “leadership development” company in West Des Moines.                

The board of Iowa Public Radio is subject to the Iowa Open Meetings Law. That law allows a board to go into closed session to, among other things, “evaluate the professional competency of an individual whose appointment, hiring, performance or discharge is being considered when necessary to prevent needless and irreparable injury to that individual’s reputation.” So far, so good, if the session really was about Herrington and her performance.                

But the exception ends: “[A]nd that individual requests a closed session.”                

Herrington did not request a closed session.                

So if the session was to discuss the culture report, it was illegal. If it was to discuss Herrington, it also was illegal. Yet nothing else was discussed.              

After the lengthy session — the “culture report” was devastatingly critical of Herrington’s management, says a person who knows about it — the board resumed its open meeting, and Director Art Neu read a motion to fire Herrington. It passed 6 to 1, with the University of Iowa’s Mark Braun voting no because, he told The Des Moines Register, he was brand new to the board and didn’t have enough background. It was a done deal. No debate, no discussion, no defense. There were no outsiders at the public meeting, and the directors agreed not to release the news until after the staff was told at a meeting the next afternoon.                

But someone quickly called reporters with a tip Herrington was fired, and reporters started calling around to confirm it. Indeed, some directors were still packing up to leave or hanging up their phones when they got calls. When Braun was called, he confirmed it. (Braun was one of the three directors who attended by phone.) An hour after the meeting ended, the news was on the Register’s website. “Confidentiality was breached,” a person close to the board told Cityview.                

The turnaround against the 48-year-old Herrington was quick. According to state records, she had been receiving annual salary increases. Here’s an excerpt from the IPR minutes of the Oct. 17, 2012, meeting, the last meeting for which minutes have been posted:                

“An anonymous email from a Gmail account was sent to the board expressing discontent with Herrington’s leadership. The senior leadership team and several managers addressed the issue. They expressed their support of Herrington, saying that she was a respected and respectful leader who mentored them and provided keen, strategic guidance. They shared concerns that she sometimes takes on too much and spreads herself too thin.                

“The managers expressed consensus that these were the complaints of a very small minority. Staff had not come to management with these concerns. [Statehouse reporter Joyce] Russell talked about morale among the news staff. She said she had not heard complaints echoing those in the anonymous email. However, the news/talk team feels stressed, short staffed, and concerned about finding a Chief Content Officer and a permanent Managing Editor – News. They are still confused about why Jonathan Ahl is no longer employed by Iowa Public Radio. Herrington reminded those present that it is always difficult to address employment questions which, by their very nature as personnel issues, cannot be discussed.”                

In fact, news boss Ahl was fired by Herrington last June. The board approved the firing.                

Earlier minutes indicate some uneasiness about employee morale — but strong support for Herrington. In June of last year, “Runge requested an agenda change to discuss staff morale. Members of the board expressed support for Herrington, shared stories of similar situations, and offered advice.” Then the board renewed her contract and gave her a raise.                

There’s no indication that Herrington, who made around $150,000 a year, was put on any kind of notice, formal or informal, following that October meeting, and she apparently was blind-sided by her ouster.                

Some background: Iowa Public Radio was established by the Board of Regents in 2004. Until then, the state had three public-radio operations, one at each of the Regents universities, and they were controlled, operated and primarily funded by the universities. The call letters could have been WDAJ, for Waste, Duplication and Jealousy. Looking ahead, some regents anticipated the day when state funding for the schools would decline and figured the universities then would squeeze the funding on the stations. As a result, the Regents voted unanimously to start the complicated process of merging, hoping the stations could ultimately become financially strong, which would help ensure journalistic vigor.                

The decision wasn’t popular with the stations, who feared for their turf, and some employees fought it feverishly. But a new organization was established, a new self-perpetuating board was set up — one representative from each school and two from the public [two others were added last year] — and in August 2005 a skilled Minnesotan named Cindy Browne was hired to start putting it together. She was careful and patient and, despite bitching and moaning from Ames and Iowa City and Cedar Falls, she somehow got the process going. She did a lot of heavy lifting, but then she got cancer and resigned in June of 2008. In January of 2009, the board hired Herrington, who had been assistant vice president for advancement operations at Creighton University in Omaha, to continue the process.                

She dug right in. She added stations in Ottumwa, Bettendorf and Des Moines to broaden coverage of the state. She merged the three so-called traffic systems, which keep track of scheduling and advertising and other on-air doings. She consolidated broadcast and technical operations in Ames, consolidated all music operations and put them in Cedar Falls and put news headquarters in Des Moines. She increased private funding by 41 percent while getting 35 percent less in university funding. She was on target to be free of university funding by 2017 while increasing total revenue. And listenership went up.                

And so did grumpiness, apparently.                

That anonymous email bothered some on the board. No one knew if it came from a current or former employee, a person who quit or a person who was fired, and at that October meeting board member Warren Madden of Iowa State “cautioned the board to avoid over-reacting,” according to the minutes. Ultimately, though, the board decided to commission the “culture study.”                

And that was the beginning of the end for Herrington.                

Mary Grace Herrington was an agent of change.               

Last week, she found out for herself that change has no constituency. …                

So now there are openings at the top of Iowa Public Radio and Iowa Public Television — IPTV’s Dan Miller is retiring next month — and suddenly there’s talk that perhaps it’s time to consolidate those two. It wouldn’t be easy, and it would take changes in the law, but some both in and out of public media are intrigued by the idea. …                

Other stuff:

Bill Van Orsdel has sold a couple of his properties South of Grand, including the “Sugar Shack” that was the site of many parties. The so-called shack is a 3,268-square-foot home built in 1999 on 4.8 acres at 3410 Lincoln Place Drive. It was most recently assessed at $683,900, and that was the price that Jeff and Kim Young paid in a sale that was recorded on Feb. 11. The seller was the William Wellesley Trust.                

The trust sold a structure across the street for $641,100 on Feb. 6. That was a 3,432-square-foot home above a 5,408-square-foot garage on 1.7 acres, and the buyer was We Can Build It LC. We Can Build It is a limited liability company with an address listed at 701 S. 25th Court in West Des Moines. And 701 S. 25th Court is a home owned by Jeff and Kim Young.              

The main house in the Van Orsdel complex, at 130 S.W. 34th St., apparently is still for sale. CV

Barmuda