IT WAS A LITTLE more than 4 years ago when Word on the Street first reported about “Discord at Community Action Alger-Marquette.” Included in that report was the assertion that this wasn’t the only time CAAM had made news in recent months.
The story at the time was that the previous director had resigned in the midst of an accusation of harassment in the workplace and was subsequently replaced by current director Michelle LaJoie. According to that Word on the Street article from February of 2019, apparently, at some point, LaJoie had a falling out with an employee, the result of which was the employee’s messy departure. We don’t know much more due to a Non-Disclosure Agreement between the two parties. An NDA at a nonprofit? Probably not unheard of, but I’d call that a red flag.
Well… if the words on the street I’m hearing are any indication, the discord is in continuation mode. Word on the Street was recently contacted by a concerned citizen about the leadership of LaJoie, and the potential damage her tenure could do to the agency.
Normally I might dismiss such accusations as something coming from disgruntled employees, or CAAM clients who are unreasonably dissatisfied with the services they expect from this community nonprofit.
But after reaching out to a number of people in the CAAM orbit, I’ve come to the conclusion that where there’s smoke, there’s fire. Though these concerned whistleblowers prefer I don’t use their names for fear of some kind of retribution, I consider my sources reliable. I’ve heard from employees, former employees, former board members, agency clients, and staff members from other agencies that work with CAAM and LaJoie.
Again, it’s important to point out that Community Action Alger-Marquette is a nonprofit, financed by taxpayer dollars and charged with delivering important services to many of our friends and neighbors. Check their website (communityactionam.org) and you’ll be impressed with the different ways they impact some of our most vulnerable citizens. The point is, it’s not a private business that can operate under the radar, with no accountability to the community at large.
The accusations of impropriety directed at LaJoie, the agency’s Executive Director, include such things as employee intimidation, disrespect shown to agency clients, mishandling of grant applications, and boorish behavior shown toward peers at partner agencies.
Word on the Street is not an investigative engine with the capacity or legal standing to dig much deeper into these allegations. Frankly, that’s something better suited to the agency’s board, if they see fit.
CAAM’s administrative team as well as its operation in general receive oversight from a 12-member appointed board. The responsibilities of a nonprofit’s board include such things as making sure the director is managing the agency in a fiscally and culturally effective manner, as well as adhering to the stated mission of CAAM.
I reached out to several board members and heard back from a small sample of them. They were understandably reluctant to share any critical thoughts they may have regarding the work of their director, indicating they were generally satisfied with her performance, and not aware of any extreme level of dissatisfaction in the community.
At a recent board meeting I attended, I was informed by one of the members that letters they receive, be they complaints or criticisms, carry little to no weight if they aren’t signed. I get it, but just because a letter isn’t signed doesn’t mean it should be so easily dismissed. Again… people who speak truth to power often suffer undeserved retribution, so anonymity is their only refuge.
Merely attending meetings, and summarily rubber stamping whatever the director puts in front of them, does a disservice to the role of a board member. The recent collapse of California’s Silicon Valley Bank, costing untold amounts of money, has been blamed in part on a board that didn’t practice the appropriate oversight. Our own Y went through something similar a few years ago and only the largesse of concerned citizens saved it from its possible demise.
Could CAAM be in such danger? Bankruptcy probably isn’t on the table, but if financial mistakes, loss of qualified staff, and irreparably damaged relationships with partner agencies are allowed to happen without being scrutinized, a shuttered office is not out of the question.
An attentive board, proactively looking into allegations of mismanagement, might be the only way to ensure the valuable services provided by CAAM will remain in place for the people of Alger and Marquette counties, for years to come.
There’s definitely smoke in the air. Now it’s up to the board to see if there’s some fire along with it.