The Rutland Park Society has been immersed in controversy and internal struggles dating back more than a decade.
So the mass resignation of society board directors at a meeting on Monday, while attention-grabbing, is just another chapter in what at times has been its bizarre recent history. In past administrations, questions have been asked about the society’s finances, why Centennial Park was largely unused and the fields rundown, why the community hall site manager would chase people out of the park who wanted to spend time there and the relationship between the Uptown Rutland Business Association and Rutland Park Society where some of the same people sat on both boards raising concerns about conflict of interest.
But while much has been done to clean up the society’s act of late by an infusion of new board members, a new chapter of dissent began to unfold after current treasurer Wendi Swarbrick was appointed to the board.
Swarbrick says she is being publicly painted as a villain in the current chaos, which saw all but chairman Todd Sanderson resign from the board during a meeting on Monday, saying it started with the deal struck by the society board to turn over Centennial Park to the city, a deal which the city negotiated for road access through the existing park for the Shepherd Road transit connection extension to Rutland Road.
The society received $800,000 from the city in the deal, money that was initially intended to upgrade Centennial Hall, an iconic facility for long-time Rutland residents but one that most newcomers to the growing community have little awareness of regarding its history and who actually runs it.
Concerns were expressed by society members and others about the road being allowed to run through the park, most notably the safety risk that brings to park users and how buses will be able to negotiate turning on and off Rutland Road to the new road.
That dissatisfaction grew further when open house consultation from the city on what amenities to include in the park, led to three options, with the city choosing one that was not met with widespread popularity. That also fed into the conspiracy notions of some that the city has another plan for the property, aided by the fact the city will have to prioritize future park development against the competing interests of other parks needed across the city.
Then came a press conference held earlier this year, in which Todd Sanderson and board member George Basran outlined the society’s plan to seek community feedback on how the society should proceed with the hall.
A consultant contract was issued to a local firm to garner feedback online and from an open house on what options to consider—do nothing for now, upgrade the hall with the $800,000 available or launch a multi-million fundraising campaign to replace the hall.
While Basran, the father of Kelowna Mayor Colin Basran, openly encouraged the community to give the board direction at the press conference, he also made comments about the potential for a new community hall to be built and how the $800,000 was far short of what was needed to upgrade the existing hall from its current building code deficiencies.
Those comments were reflected, Swarbrick says, by a push among board members to pursue a new community hall, which she vehemently disagreed with.
Swarbrick said if the board can afford to upgrade the hall to last another 10 to 15 years, that’s what it should do because that’s what the society can afford.
“I felt we were putting the cart before the horse. Everyone would love a shiny, new hall but we can’t afford it.
“But the board just blew me off. They said I was being adversarial and negative. For me, the bottom line was we don’t have the money, and it’s unlikely we will ever get government grants to build a private facility, so it didn’t make sense.”
She says society members asking questions about all these issues were branded as divisive and felt they were treated rudely at public meetings.
Swarbrick also raised those issues at a press conference in May, at which she publicly called out the board for how it was proceeding on a number of financial and policy matters, saying there was a lack of transparency.
There was no official response from the board until notice of last Monday’s meeting to expel Swarbrick from the board for her actions.
But Swarbrick’s view of the board is not shared by others she has dealt with since being appointed to the board in November 2015. The board resignations, the resolution that was before the board Monday and not acted on to remove her from the board and the comments of others who don’t want to go on the record, reflect an opinion that Swarbrick herself is the problem.
Sanderson contends that Swarbrick’s relationship with the board began to go off the rails when she billed the society for services provided by her accounting office, something he says non-profit societies can’t do without the risk of losing their non-profit tax status.
“The society can cover expenses but it cannot directly pay people for services. That is the point of being a volunteer board member,” Sanderson said.
Swarbrick disputes that argument, saying she volunteered her time as treasurer but a bookkeeper in her office was seconded, although without apparent formal board approval, to prepare some additional financial statements that were required, and the society was billed for those services.
But aside from the personality clashes with Swarbrick, Sanderson said he remains mystified at the vitriolic tone he and other board members have faced at public board and other society meetings.
“There is something going in there that I just don’t understand as this board has held more open houses, more public meetings than any other society board in this society the last few years, yet people are still angry. There were people at that meeting (on Monday) who I had never seen before who are angrily yelling at us,” Sanderson said. “They are being very protective about something which I’m not certain what that is or why that feeling is there. But I can’t just sit by quietly and let just anyone have access to the cookie jar.”
Sanderson thinks part of the source of that frustration dates back to when the existing board put in new rules and regulations to clean up the financial affairs of the society.
“We took away the control of the money from some individuals who were treating the society as their own personal bank account,” Sanderson said.
The board also jettisoned some vendors from the community market due to concerns stolen property was being sold at the weekly Sunday event.
As well, there was the URBA-RPS conflict, as the community hall remains a key component of the URBA commercial core’s future.
For her part, Swarbrick serves on both boards and indicated that may be an issue to look at moving forward.
David Buckna, a supporter of Swarbrick and frequent thorn in the side of the board, said his and other’s frustration comes down to transparency.
“When I first joined the society in 2014, I decided to get involved as a volunteer, and as with joining any new organization like that, I asked to see the minutes of past meetings to get a feel for what was going on, and I couldn’t get them,” said Buckna, who is a retired teacher.
He said calling a meeting on Monday to formerly respond to 27 questions, which he read out at the meeting, shouldn’t have been necessary, and should also have not take more than one hour to address, saying that people were upset by some of the vague answers.
Long-time Rutland resident Joe Iafrancesco, who opted to step down from the board a month ago, said he was a proponent of spending the $800,000 to upgrade the existing hall.
“I had my opinion and others had theirs and that’s OK,” he said.
“I just felt it was time for me to move on and do other things in my life.
He wants to wait awhile and see how the new board will play out before making any decision about his status.
“I felt we should carry on with what we have because we don’t have the money to do anything else,” he said.
“If someone comes along with four or five million dollars and wants to donate that to building a new hall, then great.
“But that isn’t likely to happen and the society can’t generate that kind of revenue to pay for a new hall on its own.”