Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Pacifica: Who’s in Charge?

A long simmering debate over the division of authority between Pacifica Radio’s Executive Director, Chief Financial Officer and the Pacifica National Board is underway in the foundation’s Personnel Committee. At a March 17 meeting, CFO Lonnie Hicks argued that a division of responsibility was established in the organization’s new bylaws and that the CFO shouldn’t report to the ED. Changes in his job description have been proposed by the new Executive Director Nicole Sawaya, including more accountability to the ED and less influence over hiring, handling investments, and spending priorities.

“If the national board is fiduciarilly responsible and the Executive Director is responsible with regard to reporting and accountability back to everybody, not just the national board, they have to be included in the management of these assets,” Sawaya said. “No one operates off on his own.”

Hicks argued that some of the suggested changes could “lead to mischief.” Discussing the qualifications for the job, he added, “You have to be diplomatic at Pacifica, or you’ll be demonized.” The committee is reviewing various descriptions and changes suggested by Sawaya, Hicks, and HR Director Dominga Estrada before bringing recommendations to the full Board.

You can listen to the Personnel Committee’s March 17 meeting at KPFTX.

Sawaya has suggested that the CFO should report to both the Board and ED. “The rationale is to just enhance the notion that we should be working together here. There has to be some accountability to the Executive Director,” she said. “This is a structural issue, not a personality issue. For the long term, what’s the most accountable structure we can build in?” Since she is ultimately accountable, she argued, there should be "some reporting accountability" by the CFO.

“Only the Board can direct assets and move assets around,” Hicks said. However, this conflicts somewhat with my own experience as ED in 2006 and 2007. During that period transfers of funds between investment and operating accounts were handled as an administrative financial matter, and some projects and contracts were approved by the CFO alone.

The underlying issue, according to Committee Chair Jack VanAken of KPFK, is the “CFO-PNB-ED somewhat triangular relationship.” The options outlined by Estrada include a dual reporting structure, having all staff except the CFO -- but including the national finance staff – reporting to the ED, or explicitly splitting the financial and administration departments. The Committee hopes to report back to the National Board at its upcoming Houston meeting.

Commenting on Pacifica’s general structure, Sawaya, who returned to work March 5, promised transparency but warned that “there are way too many demands” from the more than 100 Local Station Board (LSB) members for the national staff to respond to all of them.

Hicks was hired in 2002. His hire letter, signed by former ED Dan Coughlin, said that the CFO worked “under the supervision of” the executive director. However, Hicks and others note that this relationship has changed over the years, and that the bylaws say the CFO is accountable to the Board. Sawaya was hired in late September 2007, but resigned in December and renegotiated the terms of her employment over the next four months.

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