Burke Centre's Board of Trustees bucked the will of its own constituents and removed Luanne Smith as board president during a special meeting Monday night at the Ponds Community Center. Despite being overwhelmingly popular among the roughly 15,000 residents of Burke Centre, Smith lost the confidence of her board colleagues, who said she was too assertive and aggressive in her dealings with other board members. The board voted 5-1, with Smith abstaining, in favor of the unprecedented move to strip her of the board's top job. This action occurred despite angry comments from citizens who blasted trustees, saying they were demoting one of the community's most outspoken advocates.
Smith said she would remain on the Board of Trustees. Woods trustee Greg Smith, who had served as vice president, was later unanimously elected the board's new president.
"I do want to promise you all that I will do better," said Luanne Smith before the vote. "I will be kinder, gentler whether I'm president or not."
But Smith refused to apologize for her past actions, saying, "I fought a lot for this community.
"It's very, very hard to deal with perceptions," she added. "I've been demonized. Some people had that perception I was 10 feet tall. I should be flattered I guess. The perception is killing me. I'm 5 foot 7 3/4."
THE CONTROVERSY surrounding Smith dates back to last January when she wrote a letter to then-trustee Duwain Ketch, the board's treasurer, urging him to resign his position because of a $711,000 deficit in the Burke Centre Conservancy's budget. The letter was seen as threatening by several other trustees, who wrote back to Smith admonishing her to tone down her attacks. Then in March, Smith, who had previously served as the Oaks trustee, defeated Ketch for an at-large trustee seat, in a campaign that centered around the budget shortfall. The board elected Smith as its president in March. In May, the board decided not to renew the contract of the Conservancy's executive director, Tom Wade, after Smith called a closed-door meeting, which several in the community criticized.
Since she was elected president in March, Smith has also fostered a difficult working environment, said other board members, who recalled receiving angry phone calls and e-mails from Smith.
"I am not consulted in the decisions you are making," said Maria Rojtman, who was elected Oaks trustee to replace Smith when she moved on to the at-large seat. "I feel I cannot effectively work with you."
Rojtman said Smith doesn't follow the board's agenda but rather "a default agenda" of her own. "I feel that on many occasions you operate as a board of one."
Rojtman delivered an impassioned speech condemning Smith, although she said she had great "respect" for her community activism. "Your idea of leading is too often bullying and prodding folks into submission."
Other board members echoed Rojtman's comments but added, too, that they were not criticizing her involvement in the community.
"I'm not making any judgment on Luanne as a person. I'm not making any judgment on Luanne as a trustee," said Marc Flaster, the Commons representative. However, he said he did not want her to be president any longer. "We're seeing some disharmony in our community, and she's become a lightning rod in the community."
The only trustee to side with Smith was Phil Pool, an at-large trustee first elected this year in a write-in campaign. Although he said he was also uncomfortable with the way Smith had worked with the board, Pool said he was willing to give her a second chance.
"I don't think at this point we have given her a sufficient time to improve," he said.
Landings Trustee Sam DiBartolo said Burke Centre "could maybe use a president that was maybe less aggressive."
Greg Smith praised Luanne Smith for her involvement, saying he had no desire to see her leave the board. But he added he could not work with her as president.
"There's some evidence of some type of hostile work environment," he said.
BURKE CENTRE residents who packed the meeting room Monday overwhelmingly backed Luanne Smith and harshly criticized other board members for removing her from power.
"You all need to get a backbone," Doug Desrochers told the board members who opposed Smith.
"There's six of you against her," said Vernon Gerris. "You guys have the power. I just don't understand why you guys can't work together and get what you want done."
Mark Glofka said the special meeting should not have been taking place. "This is an embarrassment to the community," he said, to applause.
Joe Berner said the board was relying on hearsay and rumors to reach its decision. "I was really embarrassed by what I heard tonight," he said. "I don't think you understand what a hostile work environment is."
Ketch, the former board trustee who attended the meeting, disagreed. "I think the board is doing the right thing," he said. "Go ahead, make your decision."
Some expressed frustration that the board would take the unusual step of making an unpopular decision without consulting the citizens.
"We need to give it some time," said Nora Perry. "You don't have any input from us."
The crowd's comments underscored Smith's popularity in a community where she won 80.6 percent of the vote in the last election, more than the second and third vote getters combined.
Many speakers, like Ben Tribbett, talked of meeting Smith for the first time when she came and knocked on their doors to encourage them to volunteer. "We know what Luanne's vision is," he said. "It's strong neighborhood commitment."
After the vote, however, residents struck a conciliatory tone, saying the community would move on from the divisions that have torn it apart in recent months.
"I think the board ended better than they started," said Berner. "They're volunteers. They do a good job."
"I'm satisfied with the way it was handled, but I'm disappointed with the result," said Tribbett.
Despite the result, Smith said she felt "a very big relief" at finally putting the controversy to rest and said she would continue working for the community, where she has lived for 22 years.
"Please do not drop out because of anything done tonight," she told the audience. "Don't stop being a volunteer. ... We need you."