Wednesday, March 26, 2014

After Staff Shakeup, Project Vote Smart "Rebuilding" and Pointing Towards 2016 With Project Galaxy, Says Tucson Boardmember

The headline from the Montana newspaper sounded dire, "Project Vote Smart lays off 6, considers closing".  The article focused on the layoffs and the hard feelings towards founder and President (and, Arizonan) Richard Kimball.  The truth, according to a couple of boardmembers, is that the nationally-known organization is "rebuilding" and pointing to the 2016 election - when new projects will make sense of the entire galaxy of political information and make it easier than ever for voters to know where candidates stand on issues important to them.

Vote Smart has been an award-winning organization that for more than 25 years has collected information on candidates, office-holders, initiatives, and assembles it in ways that can help voters make informed choices when they complete their ballots. It has been a tremendous resource.

Arizona's Politics spoke with two boardmembers, including SecretaryTreasurer Susan Brandes. They both indicated that the board had reached consensus on the need to lay off several persons, and that Kimball would be the one to handle the unpleasant task asap.
Kimball,  a former Arizona State lawmaker and Corporation Commissioner, who began Project Vote Smart in 1988 shortly after losing the senatorial campaign to John McCain (to replace Barry Goldwater), currently resides in Tucson and went to the Vote Smart ranch/headquarters in a Montana wilderness to meet with the staff.
Four people - including the long time IT Director -  had recently left for different reasons.  After laying off 4 more (in the research department and the lodge manager), five more upset staffmembers left and two were fired for cause. Both boardmembers stated that the laid off staff received $600 stipends to get back to civilization/home.

Brandes notes that the organization is in "dire straits", and that the recession and the refocusing by some large foundations from "voter information" to other "good government" priorities.  Indeed a review of the 501(c)(3) organization's IRS filings (officially known as the Center for Indeendence in Politics) does indicate that annual revenues had decreased 33% between 2008 and 2012 from approximately $1.5M to $1.0M (two year averages).  (The most recent 990 IRS filing is at the bottom of this article.)

"We could either struggle along now... or we can rebuild and have (new Political Galaxy and other social media projects) ready for 2016," said Brandes.  The Political Galaxy project, according to Vote Smart's website, was to have been up and running by last month.

Both boardmembers expressed understanding of the staff's angry reaction, but note that the "money just isn't there" to maintain the staffing levels.  

Brandes emphasized that they "are focused on keeping current databases current" and have shifted remaining staff to ensure that voters can continue to find fresh information for the 2014 elections.  The other boardmember noted that the staff level is currently 26, and that it is "normally at 42" at this point in an election cycle.  (Vote Smart does have three different positions currently advertised on its website.)

The board also decided to put the 50-acre property near Philipsburg, Montana on the market - partly in order to determine its value, and partly because they are coming to the conclusion that it may be better to have the organization housed near a university (as they previously did).

We welcome your comments about this post. Or, if you have something unrelated on your mind, please e-mail to info-at-arizonaspolitics-dot-com or call 602-799-7025. Thanks.


Anonymous said...

There is in no way 26 staffers. This a blatant lie, and an easily disprovable one. The Vote Smart list of staff has only 11 staffers who are still employed, although on their website they still have the 10 employees who were let go in the past 2 weeks. This group of 11 current includes the 4 staffers based in Austin who are funded separately by University of Texas.

I worked there for years, and there have never been close to 42 employees. Is he attempting to include the interns who show up for 10 weeks in the summer? This is misdirection and shows the true character of the organization that ostensibly stands for transparency. If the Board wants to defend their actions, you cannot hide the fact that the staff is now half what it was 2 weeks ago.

Staff list, does not include recent layoffs:

Mitch M. said...

Thanks for the comment and the info, Anon. Here's some background: I did ask a few questions to try to ascertain current staffing, and was not able to get conclusive answers. Thus, I attributed the number to the person's comment. I felt it was worthwhile for comparative purposes - peak vs. now.

I suspect you are correct re: counting the interns, but was not certain enough to make that statement.

I am reluctant to wade (further) into what is obviously (from the initial article, and from your comment) a raw, emotional situation.

Anonymous said...

How does Vote Smart expect to keep it's "databases current" when the staff that were laid off were the only ones who knew how to do those jobs?

Why is PVS hiring for those positions when it just let go of everyone in those departments? If the staff that were "laid off" were properly done so, shouldn't they be offered their jobs back?

Anonymous said...

There are not twenty-six people currently employed by Project Vote Smart. There are ten staff members in the Montana headquarters and four in the University of Texas office. This is a ridiculous assertion and further evidence that the board either has no idea what's going on or is simply lying. The 'Meet Our Staff' page has not yet been updated because staff numbers have been reduced so unexpectedly and drastically that the remaining staff members are completely occupied with trying to keep things afloat.

Anonymous said...

It seems really suspicious that they "laid off" the veteran employees who knew how to do everything instead of the two that had been hired two weeks prior.

Anonymous said...

Kimball did not go to Montana to notify the four people laid off. He did it by email from Arizona. It was also a group email in which he fired all four at once.

Anonymous said...

There are numerous issues with this article, the layoffs themselves, and the information relayed from Project Vote Smart board members.

1. Laid off staff were notified via a mass email to all Montana based staff. There were no individual meetings, there weren't even phone calls. Kimball sent out a mass email addressed to the four staff members that were laid off, stating that the board had asked him to make some difficult cuts. In that email he also failed to mention that those staff members would receive severance. This is also after he stated that the board had asked him to step back. If that's the case, then why did he state that he was involved in making any of the cuts?

2. Kimball then came to Montana and, during an all staff meeting, at least two staff members spoke and and expressed their frustration with the entire situation. Two of the remaining staff were then fired due to irreconcilable differences with Richard. Montana is not an at-will employer, so the legality of those firings is questionable.

3. Jobs for Research Associates and Communications Associates were then posted on Idealist and Craigslist, without offering jobs back to those employees laid off on that Friday.

4. I would like to know when, in recent history, Vote Smart has employed 46 people, even in an election year.

5. Adelaide Kimball has said that Richard had no part in the lay off decisions, even though his termination email to all staff said otherwise. She also stated that they had worked to cut costs by installing a wood burning boiler and eliminating horse costs. The wood boiler has been in place for years and this year Vote Smart opened a cabin that was powered by propane to accommodate recent hires. They were told they could stay indefinitely, despite these increased costs. Moreover, only one horse belongs to PVS, the rest are the neighbor's horses that, based on my understanding, PVS boards in exchange for assistance in their costs.

6. If PVS is truly suffering from financial hardship, why have they hired 8 new staff members since January, one of whom started two weeks after the layoffs? There was also discussion the day before the layoff of hiring up to six new staff members to prepare for the election cycle.

7. Of the four employees laid off, 3 were in the research department and one of the Research Associates was the lodge manager. The final person laid off was the Office Manager, who conducted all of the hiring procedures for new staff and interns.

The conflicting information is disgusting coming from an organization that allegedly values transparency. Overall, people should seriously reconsider whether or not to fund an organization that, at least on the surface, grossly misuses their employees and fails to allocate funds appropriately even after being in operation for over twenty years.

Mitch M. said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Mitch M. said...

Removed because it had been typed-but-not-published two hours earlier, and I inadvertently sent it a few minutes ago. It simply said, "Thanks, Anons", which I thought seemed too flip given the recent posts.

Anonymous said...

Not surprised; fired staff had received raises and health insurance.

Mitch M. said...

I appreciate the additional information provided by the one or more Anons. I will try to contact the boardmembers I spoke with, and see if they wish to address any or all of your points. Although still reluctant, I would like to see this matter dealt with as openly as is possible. However, I well understand that internal matters - and, especially, internal matters dealing with personnel decisions - are sometimes inappropriate for public airing.

Rhett said...

The lies reported in this article are proof of the immense hypocrisy of Project Vote Smart.

Anonymous said...

But they also recently raised the starting salary from 17850 to 19000 (per idealist postings). So the raise is basically negligible now. That seems pretty strange for an organization in "dire straits."

Anonymous said...

Here's one thing you may ask the board members you contact. One of the employees fired "for cause," as you reported, had discovered a budget discrepancy. He found donations that Kimball had not factored in to his accounting when explaining how little of a budget PVS had available. Many of the staff members remaining feel that Kimball fired this person as a cover-up. A previous annon poster references this when he says that the two were fired for "irreconcilable differences with Richard." I believe that phrase was also the exact phrase provided to staff to explain those two firings. The question of why someone can be fired for "irreconcilable differences" is another matter entirely.

I think if you ask the board members if there were any discrepancies in the budget regarding donations possibly missing from the accounting, it would fall outside of the inappropriate area you mentioned regarding personnel decisions.

Anonymous said...

This board has NO idea what's going on. It's no wonder the budget is was written by Richard Kimball, who as far as I can tell, has no background in business. The "budget" is a single page with about 14 line items and no descriptions, just giant amounts. For example, last year Vote Smart spent something like $125,000 on consultants. That's literally all the budget says. A 7-year-old could have written something more comprehensive.

Anonymous said...

Could you also ask the board why Richard and his wife's salaries have consistently up since the recession, even though they constantly claim Vote Smart is struggling financially? And why at least $400,000 of their home's equity is DONOR money?

Anonymous said...

"We could either struggle along now... or we can rebuild and have (new Political Galaxy and other social media projects) ready for 2016," said Brandes.

It is going to be difficult, if not impossible, to rebuild anything after letting go the only staff members who actually know how to do everything, including the person who was in charge of recruitment and payroll. There is one department that is now made up of one staff member who has been in that department for two months and three staff members who have been there for fewer than three weeks (one of whom has been asked to take on responsibilities in two other departments as well). The Development and Communications Department no longer exists as a result of the layoff, consequent firings, and controversy surrounding both.

If the goal of the board is truly to keep "current databases current" and "rebuild," they would not have let go of nearly their entire knowledge base. It will be virtually impossible for Project Vote Smart to continue to deliver the product it promises to its users.

Robert A. Hallman said...

I have been recently trying to volunteer my services to PVS since early January 2014. I guess my difficultly in getting a return communication is all part of this serious problem. It is clear there maybe the requirement to resolve the differences stated in this environment needs individuals willing to solve problems. Reading the complaints and responding is difficult for someone like me who has years of political and management experience.

The communication from PVS should address the issues by asking for a objective source to help. Finger pointing is a damaging activity when there is important decisions needed to be made. An objective third party needs to review the Human Resource decisions involving the terminations. If in fact there was wrongful terminations this should be resolved. From my point of view of years of Management Consulting this is one of the first requirements. An experienced spokesmen would also stop the flow of anger and media exposure. Our friends in the media love a good fight and will help by building a fire of misunderstanding and political war.

This all has a Washington Ring. "Lets fight and screw things up" so the purpose of the PVS is damaged for the important upcoming election. I have no first hand knowledge of this but my years in politics keep such motives in mind.

I am not sure my remarks will help but my few suggestions to those involved might want to consider this type of resolve. I am sure there are individuals who are willing to help. No-Profits (I ran one in Pennsylvania) can find themselves lost in a administrated hell created by those who have a different slant than the business community.

Money, Management and Politics can make a nasty stew. Find some cool heads to make sure there is a reasonable solution.

Anonymous said...

Having had the misfortune to work for Richard Kimball for a couple of years, you would have to be from another planet to think that he would ever hire an independent arbiter to moderate all this. If you met him, you would know. It's Richard's way or the highway, unfortunately, as the staff turnover over the time I was there shows.

Anonymous said...

Richard is a bully ,and has all the signs of Founder's syndrome .He trust no one ,and lives in the past .Most people that works on the staff ,believes in the project's goals ,but not in Richard . He seems to be only around ,now days to get a check ,since he has no other ways of making a dime.
So where is this board ,he talks about ,all the time ? Maybe the people who supports (money),votesmart need a say ,in matters of running things.

Anonymous said...

Message from the Vote Smart Board:

For 20 years Vote Smart has enjoyed the highest ratings from its interns and former staff. Many
of our staff members are selected from the young students who have interned at Vote Smart. A number of us on Vote Smart’s national Board have worked at Vote Smart, including me. A great many now work in prominent government positions throughout the country, some have become college professors, and journalists even serve in elected office. I joined the Vote Smart staff at our Montana offices shortly after finishing graduate school.

We have always had the best and the brightest. Staff working after hours, weekends and whatever it took to accomplish Vote Smart’s goal of defending a citizen’s right to facts.

However, we did have a little difficulty with a small group of staff members over the past year who did not join Vote Smart for the right reasons or adhere to Vote Smart procedures. In anger, those same young people began a number of false rumors in local media about Vote Smart and caused
some modest damage to Vote Smart property. Vote Smart has not responded, because we do not discuss personal matters publicly.

A few facts to help clear up the misinformation:

1. Vote Smart is having a record Membership contribution year.

2. Our Montana research center has not been sold. It is being marked exclusively to ascertain its value and under no circumstance would it be sold in the near future. A recent audit showed that costs at our Montana research center have gone up over the past 10 years making the board question whether it might not be more efficient to house all of its operations in more traditional university settings such as we currently do through our offices at the University of Texas.

3. Anchored by new large grants received from supporters, Vote Smart is fully staffed and at
full operation at our Montana site. Our University of Texas offices were never affected by what appears to have been the isolated negative culture created by a few misguided young people.

Jessica Arrigoni
Vote Smart
National Board Chair

Anonymous said...

Richard we know that's you! Jessica Arrigoni is a figment of your imagination!