Chaps owner Tony LaBua spoke for those not in the thick of last week’s Downtown Business Association of Charlottesville coup: “I’m confused. Is George not president?”
George Benford wasn’t chair at that point early in an August 17 DBAC board meeting, but within 45 minutes, he was elected co-chair, and Joan Fenton, who had prompted his August 8 resignation when she told him his election in March may not have been legal, survived a vote to remove her from the board because her opponents couldn’t muster a two-thirds majority.
The feud between the city and Charlottesville Parking Center owner Mark Brown over the Water Street Garage seeped into the DBAC, with factions forming and accusations from Fenton that Benford and other DBAC board members were in Brown’s pocket.
After last week’s public airing of DBAC grievances, Fenton took charge of Wednesday’s board meeting and explained her discovery that a decision to amend the bylaws and move the membership year to begin January 1 had never been made official, and therefore Benford’s election after former chair and former CPC general manager Bob Stroh resigned was invalid.
“I didn’t do this easily,” said Fenton. She said she’d consulted Tuel Jewelers’ Mary Loose DeViney, who in fact is a professional registered parliamentarian. DeViney agreed the elections held at the March meeting were not in accordance with the bylaws. Fenton waited to break the news until after an August 5 meeting of the bylaws committee, she said, because “I didn’t want it to look like I was doing anything improper.”
An angry board challenged Fenton when she passed out the bylaws and an e-mail with DeViney’s opinion. “Why are we just receiving this?” asked Will Van der Linde, manager of the Main Street Arena, which is owned by Brown.
Attorney David Pettit, who represents Violet Crown Cinema, which has lobbied the DBAC to tell the city it wants the Water Street Garage to be a public utility, said he came to the August 17 because Fenton asked him to weigh in on the bylaws situation, not on behalf of Violet Crown, which is also a DBAC member.
The calendar year could be changed in the bylaws by a two-thirds vote of the board, he said, but he found no evidence that occurred in the minutes. And if the board doesn’t follow its bylaws, the result is “chaos,” he said.
Fenton wanted to have an election in September at the annual members meeting, 90 days after the June 30 end of the membership year under the old bylaws. It didn’t work out like that.
Van der Linde proposed a motion to change the membership year to January 1 and make it retroactively effective January 1, 2016.
“I will question the validity of that motion because we do not know who our board was,” said Fenton.
That brought up another issue. Some of the board’s 17 members had been elected, like Benford, under the unofficial new bylaws. In a vote of only those who had been on the board before the contested election, a 9-1 decision was made to change the membership year in the bylaws, with Fenton the sole “no” vote.
Van der Linde made another motion: “I move to fill the vacancy of [co-chair] Bob Stroh with George Benford.” That passed 8-2, with Fenton and Spring Street owner Cynthia Schroeder, who had been in the ax-Benford faction and who has plans to start a new business association, voting no.
Van der Linde had yet another motion, the most dramatic yet. “I make a motion to remove Joan Fenton from the board,” he said. That 6-2 vote, with two abstaining and two absent, failed to get the two-thirds necessary to oust Fenton.
“I think I really upset a lot of people by publicly stating my issues and by refusing to have an emergency meeting,” said Fenton, who remains co-chair, after the meeting. “I think there was a lot of anger at me and I hope we can move past that and work together.”
In a final motion, Van der Linde moved to reinstate the nine people who had been elected to the board earlier in the year.
Several members seemed shaken by the events of the past week. David Posner, an investor with Davenport & Company and a board member whose election was questioned, said everyone had been “very happy” with how things were going at the DBAC, and that he found it alarming “all of a sudden to see this coup go down.”
“What we’re trying to do is bring this ship back to port,” said Amy Wicks-Horn, whose membership and allegiances Fenton had questioned. Although COO for the Piedmont Family YMCA, Wicks-Horn says she’s not a DBAC member in her work capacity. Fenton had pointed out that neither Wicks-Horn nor Benford owned businesses on the Downtown Mall.
“In the past week, our reputation has suffered,” when it was “only one or two individuals” leading the charge to oust Benford, said Wicks-Horn.
“It’s been very disturbing,” said Roy Van Doorn, a partner at City Select. “It’s been very personal. When motives get questioned in a public way, it’s really out of place. I ask the leaders of DBAC to temper their comments. It’s been very disturbing to the board. It’s been very disturbing to the members. [The DBAC] has to be focused on its members and its issues.”
And with that, Van der Linde moved on to talk about DBAC plans to put lighting in trees for the mall’s 40th anniversary.
Afterward, Fenton said, “Sometimes the best thing is to have an open and honest discussion. When you clear the air, you can move past that and work together.”
The issues that had been “festering” were not discussed at the meeting, she said, but people did get to express their displeasure.
She added, “I do sincerely think [Benford] and I can work together.”