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Published: Saturday, 8/22/2009

YMCA president and CEO confronts Senator Fedor, neighbors

BY JC REINDL
BLADE STAFF WRITER

The president and CEO of the YMCA and JCC of Greater Toledo led a 40-person contingent of his employees and supporters to the South Toledo Y Friday to confront state Sen. Teresa Fedor and south-end Y members who were holding a news conference to complain about his management of the organization.

The noon-hour news conference soon devolved into shouting matches and a heated confrontation involving the neighborhood Y members and a visibly angry Robert Alexander, head of the YMCA in Toledo since 1989. Friday, Mr. Alexander was leading an angry crowd of YMCA headquarters employees who repeatedly shouted down Ms. Fedor and several critics of his plan to shut down the South branch.

After several back-and-forth exchanges with area neighbors Cooper Suter and Mark Hertzfeld, both critics of branch-closure plans and both longtime South Y members, Mr. Alexander trained his attention on Ms. Fedor, (D, Toledo), who moments earlier spoke about how "the community would like to have an open dialogue and discussion with the community and leadership of the [YMCA] executive board."

Shouting and pointing fingers at the state senator, Mr. Alexander joined several Y employees and his own wife, Stephanie Dames, also a Y employee, in heckling Ms. Fedor and demanding that she explain her vote in June to approve a state budget that cut funding for the Early Learning Initiative child-care program for low-income families.


The state budget canceled the ELI program, resulting in cuts to the YMCA's budget exceeding $1.5 million.

YMCA leaders have described this funding loss as the final nail in the coffin of a perennial money-losing South Toledo Y. Neighbors have accused the YMCA of using the lost ELI dollars as an excuse to close a building in which the Y had long ago lost interest.

Mr. Alexander blamed Ms. Fedor for the closing threat.

"In June, you gave us an award for child care. A beautiful ELI award. And then you voted against the program and hurt this YMCA," Mr. Alexander said, his voice rising as he advanced on Senator Fedor. "You did this. We begged you not to do this, Senator Fedor. We wouldn't be here if you hadn't voted for that budget."

Although Ms. Fedor tried throughout the news conference to bring the focus back to the South Toledo Y's future, she was often drowned out by hecklers holding YMCA signs.

Ms. Dames, who is senior vice president of development, was among the most vocal.

"You can go back to Columbus - we don't want you to talk," shouted one angry man who refused to give his name. "We don't want you here."

"Did you vote for the state budget?" yelled another employee. "Did you vote for the state budget that cut millions of dollars?"

"Answer the question. Answer the question," crowd members taunted. "What is the answer, senator?"

The heckling continued for several minutes with Mr. Alexander and his wife in the middle of the crowd of shouting Y employees, including several top YMCA executives and the wife of at least one YMCA board member.

Ms. Fedor did not address the voting question during the news conference. When she tried to steer her message back to "it's about Y leadership and communicating," Mr. Alexander interrupted the senator again, arms in the air shouting at her and pointing in her direction.

"No, it's not," Mr. Alexander said, flanked by Todd Tibbits, vice president of operations, and Josh Heaston, the Y's Christian emphasis director. "It's about you coming out here and marching when you did not support this community by voting for that budget."

Later, when the confrontation died down, Ms. Fedor explained that she supported a budget amendment that would have restored the ELI funding, but the measure failed to gain support.

"I fought to restore the ELI money," Ms. Fedor told The Blade. "I didn't win that fight, but constitutionally we needed to have a balanced budget."

She continued, "Unfortunately, the South Y had to take the hit financially, and the South Y community and its members were never included in the decision-making and information about the closure."

This is not the first time Mr. Alexander has exhibited threatening and erratic behavior when he's been criticized.

Earlier this month, he stormed into The Blade demanding a meeting with editors after the newspaper published a story about his $270,000 salary and the salaries paid to his wife and other family members, including his daughter, daughter-in-law, and stepson.

In total, the YMCA pays Alexander family members more than $630,000 a year in total compensation.

"If it's a war you want, it's a war we'll bring you," he shouted at editors, claiming without explanation that The Blade's coverage of the South Y closing was endangering children swimming in Y pools.

After telling editors that "I'm a good Christian man and I have nothing to hide," he quickly left the newsroom.

Questions of Christianity were raised during yesterday's confrontation. Mr. Suter and others opposed to the branch closing were asked if they were Christians numerous times.

Mr. Suter finally asked a question of his own to the shouting group from Y headquarters: "Is being a Christian a requirement to belonging to the YMCA?"

He wasn't given an answer but his Quaker upbringing, he said later, helped him to deal with Mr. Alexander's outbursts.

On Wednesday, YMCA officials announced a three-month reprieve to earlier plans to close the branch on Woodsdale Park Drive and give the property at no cost to CedarCreek Church.

But if the branch should fail to sell 500 special reduced-price, branch-only memberships by Nov. 30 that could keep the facility operating for three more years, the property will again be handed to the church, Mr. Alexander said.

The neighborhood group at its news conference Friday criticized the membership drive challenge as a "Trojan horse" maneuver by Mr. Alexander to ultimately shift blame to south-end residents for the branch closing.

Tempers flared about three minutes into the news conference when Mr. Suter said that neighbors "are not pawns" to the Y's "chess game."

Mr. Alexander at that moment stood with the Y contingent a few feet away from the group giving the news conference. He interrupted Mr. Suter and said, "If you want communication with us, why did you hire general counsel?" The remark was a reference to the neighbors' recent decision to retain attorneys Scott Ciolek and Fritz Byers. Mr. Byers also represents The Blade on news-related matters.

"Because it's the only chance we have to talk to you," Mr. Suter responded, pointing out that Y executives have refused to hold a public meeting to take questions about the decision to close the branch. As people on the Y side began to heckle Mr. Suter, Mr. Alexander shot off another remark, "Why does the counsel work for The Blade?"

Sensing rising anger, Ms. Fedor quickly tried to restore order only to be heckled herself.

As the event morphed into a shouting match, Mr. Alexander yelled at Mr. Hertzfeld and accused the neighborhood group of misrepresenting the South Toledo branch issue to the media. He also criticized them for not embracing the 90-day delay that they initially asked Y leaders to grant.

"We had a covenant that you broke," Mr. Alexander yelled.

"That's not accurate," Mr. Hertfeld shot back. "Two days later you make an announcement - you bring the Trojan horse out - and try to make us fail again."

Mr. Alexander countered: "We gave you what you wanted: an extension of time, a realistic goal, and a membership campaign," he said. "We're going to sell 500 memberships. If you would stay positive, we will kick off next Thursday night."

But to Mr. Suter, the membership drive is a made-to-fail challenge imposed on the community after what he has described as years of Y neglect of the aging South Toledo facility.

"You created a Trojan horse, another self-fulfilling prophecy. If you don't maintain it, they won't come," Mr. Suter said.

The episode later spread into smaller confrontations between individual members of the neighbors group and those of the Y contingent. Eventually there was a prayer and final remarks by the Y's Christian emphasis director.

"I am the pastor of the Y and I get to be around all these people who are hurting every single day - and this doesn't help," Mr. Heaston said. "They have to make decisions here every day that most people here don't even comprehend, so a little grace might be appreciated."

YMCA Board President Paul Schlatter did not return a message seeking comment about the news conference.

Reflecting later on what happened, Mr. Suter said he was dismayed by Mr. Alexander's disruptive behavior and the decision to stage a counter-rally to the neighbors' news conference. Y headquarter's employees came holding prepared signs.

"We came to make two points: to reply to the membership challenge and to request a meeting publicly that we couldn't get privately," Mr. Suter said. "Robert Alexander created the confrontation. This was his style of leadership."

He added, "Is that really what you want out of a not-for-profit, community-building organization?"

Contact JC Reindl at:

jreindl@theblade.com

or 419-724-6065.


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