Canales went into great detail describing the shortcomings of the Penn State board. For Vermonters, who serve on non-profit, town, school district or other boards, Canales's comments are worth noting.
Obviously, no board member would want to have to deal with the enormity of the scandal the Penn State Board is having to deal with. Nevertheless, in recent years, board members in Vermont have had their share of serious mismanagement within their institutions.
Previous boards' of trustees of Fletcher Allen Medical Center, the Vermont Veteran's Home, The Town of Ira and East Hardwick, to name only a few, were caught up in scandals - which in all cases could have been avoided had their boards done the job they were empowered to do.
As noted by Canales, the Freeh report came down quite hard on the Penn State Board of Trustees and justifiably so. Freeh noted that the board had been disengaged, uninformed, bowed to the University's president, and tolerated a culture of discouraging any dissent.
Anyone of these short-comings would be in direct conflict with the Vermont Nonprofit Corporation Act. In part, the statute calls for board members
A case in point in applying the statute and the above-mentioned short-comings, would be the Town of Ira. This town of 300 or so residents had an embezzlement of town funds of over $400,000. It's long serving town treasurer has been convicted and sentenced to Federal prison for carrying out his 10 years of thievery.
Two summers ago, I interviewed the convicted town treasurer, Don Hewitt, as well as several elected Ira select board members.
Their responses to my questions were quite telling. Hewitt was clear about how he stole from the town - he noted "that everyone trusted him, no one on the board reviewed what he was doing, and no questions regarding the town's finances were asked by board members."
It wasn't until two newly elected board members took office that questions were raised.
The other board members response to the questions being raised was "don't rock the boat." Expressed in another way, several long serving board members resorted to a culture "of discouraging dissent."
In his report, Freeh noted other forms of board short-comings. He pointed out a culture of deference, of being afraid to challenge. These shortcomings were very much in evidence at the multi-million dollar scandal that engulfed the Fletcher Allen Medical Center. The board members serving at the time of the scandal lost sight of their responsibilities. Freeh uncovered the same culture at Penn State - the board of trustee's allegiance was to the leader of the institution, not to the institution.
Those of us who work with nonprofits, town and school boards often times hear the CEO say "I have to manage my board." According to Canales, this is a formula for disaster. Boards aren't to be managed. There should be a partnership between the board and the organization's CEO.
Canales further notes:
"This investment of time and effort today to ensure a strong, collaborative partnership between the board and CEO will bring enormous payoffs in the long term. More important, it may actually ensure we have indeed learned the lesson this time."
When one considers that Vermont has over 8,000 non-profit organizations, in addition, thousands of municipal, fire and rescue entities and school district boards, the quality of governance and competence of board members cannot possibly be the same - recent scandals have proven this to be the case.
We don't ever want to have to endure a Penn State type scandal in Vermont.
Unfortunately, we have had our share of lesser ones. Maybe its time we take stock of how as a board and as a board member we are doing in carrying out our responsibilities.
A good start would be to insure that every board member knows what is expected of him or her; so few do. It would also help if we got back to having experienced board members mentor each new board member.
Far too many boards just assume that the new member will "learn the ropes;" not so. And above all, if as a board member, you believe you are being "stonewalled" when you raise a question, resign and let the "world" know you have done so and why.
Don Keelan writes a bi-weekly column and lives in Arlington.