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Milwaukee LGBT Community Center

Community center shifts to self-selecting board

The Milwaukee LGBT Community Center has enacted major changes in its bylaws, including a shift from a board elected by members to one that’s board-appointed.

The Nov. 29 vote approving the bylaws was the third time in the past 18 months that members have been asked by center’s leadership to adopt the new rules.

Critics say the changes effectively silence members and isolate the center’s governance from community input. But center executive director Maggie Cage counters that the changes reflect the agency’s growth, which requires a professional board.

“As the service mission grew and changed and professional staff were added, the needs of the organization changed, and this change in structure is part of the development process for the center,” said Cage, who’s headed the agency for four years.

When the Milwaukee LGBT Community Center hired its first employee in 1998, it had an annual operating budget of under $30,000. Today the center, which recently moved to a 22,000-square-foot facility in the restored Blatz Boiler House building, 252 E. Highland Ave., employs 14 professional staff and has an operating budget of close to $1 million.

According to the 2009 annual report, the center delivered social services and programming to more than 8,000 people. The report shows an operating budget of $818,878 and revenues of $1,061,648.

The change to a self-perpetuating board was approved by almost three-quarters of the 50 members attending the Nov. 29 meeting. Members present also approved changes in rules governing the role of members.

The revised bylaws are published on the center’s website at www.mkelgbtcc.org.

Joe Pabst, who voted against the change to a self-perpetuating board, said he and some other members felt that non-profit professionals at the center were taking power away from them and removing their voices from board decisions.

“A lot of members who are less vocal, or who are afraid to speak up for fear of retribution or for other reasons, feel their voices have been ignored,” Pabst said. He said he was concerned about “a general attitude taken by the center in that direction.”

“I want to be clear that I am not anti-community-center, but I am anti-anything that takes away the voice of the people,” Pabst said. “The center has some wonderful components, like its anti-violence project, which is critically important.”

Cage said while she understands and respects the difference of opinion over the changes, the center needed a board whose members would meet a fundraising goal and have expertise in business and management oversight. She said stricter IRS regulations and heightened scrutiny that come with a $1 million budget and larger grants require board members to be legally responsible for the center’s finances and operational decisions.

“We really have tried to provide some meaningful education to our constituents,” Cage said. “We have brought in outside experts to inform and educate members as to the pitfalls of membership-driven boards versus self-perpetuating boards. My assignment is to move the Milwaukee LGBT Community Center forward, and in this case having a self-perpetuating board is the best practice.”

Pabst said the center failed to notify him and other members about the Nov. 29 meeting via mail, as required by the center’s bylaws.

Cage, however, insisted that notifications were mailed to all dues-paying members in good standing.

“We want our members to be active in the center and want them to come in and participate in our day-to-day activities as volunteers,” Cage said. She said members and non-members alike could contact her with questions about the changes to the center’s bylaws.

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