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Published: Thursday, 10/29/2009

YMCA chief to retire July 31; letter announces embattled executive's exit

BY MARK ZABORNEY
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Robert Alexander, the embattled president of the YMCA & JCC of Greater Toledo, is retiring effective July 31, board chairman Paul Schlatter said in a letter to YMCA supporters dated yesterday.

Mr. Alexander, also the organization's chief executive officer, announced his retirement at yesterday's board of directors meeting, Mr. Schlatter wrote.

“A visionary leader and noted collaborator, Mr. Alexander has led the YMCA since 1989 and has overseen a period of substantial growth in both reach and community impact,” Mr. Schlatter said in the letter.

Mr. Alexander could not be reached for comment last night.

His annual base salary of $270,357 has made him the highest-paid president and CEO of a YMCA system in Ohio and the highest-paid head of a social service agency in Toledo.

He became the subject of scrutiny — and criticism — after he announced in late July that the South Toledo YMCA, on Woodsdale Park Drive near the Anthony Wayne Trail, would close by late August. Mr. Alexander cited state-funding cuts to the Early Learning Initiative preschool program as one reason the South Y needed to close.

The South Y remains open and a drive to boost membership rolls is ongoing, the result of a community outcry.

The news in July, though, stunned neighbors and members. Many were angered that the community hadn't been consulted. The Blade reported that although

Mr. Alexander said the South Y must close because of annual deficts there, he, his wife, daughter, and daughter-in-law each held executive-level Y jobs and drew combined salaries of more than $600,000 a year.

Earlier this month, State Sen. Teresa Fedor (D., Toledo) confirmed that the Ohio attorney general's office is investigating the financial operations of the YMCA.

Asked whether Mr. Alexander's retirement is related to the public uproar over the South Toledo Y, Mr. Schlatter said, “Absolutely not.''

“This has been planned for a year-and-a-half,” Mr. Schlatter said. “It's part of our strategic plan.”

Mr. Alexander's age was a consideration as he'll be 64 when the retirement takes effect, Mr. Schlatter said.

“He wants to retire,” Mr. Schlatter said. “It had nothing to do with the South Y or The Blade.”

Ms. Fedor last night said the Y board should have made Mr. Alexander leave immediately.

“This might look like a step in the right direction. It's not,” Ms. Fedor said. “This is not a fiscally sound step, having to pay a lame-duck director for eight months when we're struggling financially.

“It's another irresponsible act. I'm just so disappointed,” Ms. Fedor said.

In August, Mr. Alexander, his wife — Stephanie Dames, the Y's senior vice president of development — along with 40 employees and supporters confronted Ms. Fedor and South Y members who were holding a news conference critical of Mr. Alexander's management. The crowd heckled the state senator and community members, with Mr. Alexander shouting and pointing fingers at Ms. Fedor.

Earlier, Mr. Alexander came to The Blade's offices after an article appeared about his pay.

During a meeting with editors, he raised his voice and threatened: “If it's a war you want, it's a war we'll bring you,” and “Someone's going to get hurt if this keeps up,” and “I'm shutting you down. I'm shutting you down.”

Mr. Alexander's retirement plans were made public two weeks after his daughter-in-law, Jody Alexander, said she was leaving as executive director of the YMCA Perrysburg branch Fort Meigs Center for Health Promotion to become group vice president of the Central Florida YMCA. In that job, she will supervise four branches in suburban Orlando.

Yesterday, Gary Batts of the Coalition of Concerned Citizens and Y Members said, “I think we as a group applaud the Y board for their decision to change leadership.”

He said the coalition started with two goals — to stop the South Y from closing and to change the local YMCA corporate culture to be “more transparent, more fair, to embrace the values [the YMCA] was founded on,” Mr. Batts said. “I applaud this as a return to those values.”

“We as a coalition got the distinct impression that it was a top-down bureaucracy,” Mr. Batts said. “That was reinforced in several meetings we attended, that people would look to Robert Alexander before venturing an opinion.”

The YMCA at first laid out a membership-drive plan to save the branch, which coalition members criticized as doomed to fail. The coalition and YMCA executives met, and when a restructured membership drive was relaunched Sept. 30, Mr. Alexander was absent from the event.

Mark Hertzfeld, a member of the coalition, said he appreciated Mr. Alexander's years of service and wished him well.

“He and his wife were very gracious to me at the opening [last month] of the West Toledo Y, and they said we hope we can have this in the south end too,” Mr. Hertzfeld said. “We were beginning to work together, I do believe.”

For Mr. Hertzfeld, Mr. Alexander's compensation and charges of nepotism were the YMCA board's concern.

“I've always been steadfast that that is not an issue for me. The issue was the viability of the South Y in the neighborhood I grew up in,” Mr. Hertzfeld said.

In working to spare the South Y, Mr. Hertzfeld said he has become familiar with Y board members, executives, and staff members.

“I think there are capable candidates to promote within the YMCA system,” Mr. Hertzfeld said. “I trust the board to do the right thing, and I'm willing to work with them.”

The YMCA board appointed Lee Dunn, a trustee for life, to lead a search committee with the staff from the national YMCA of the USA to find a successor.

Cooper Suter, a South Toledo resident, South Y member, and a critic of how the YMCA leadership has dealt with the community, said yesterday that Mr. Alexander's departure does not solve the community's underlying concern about the Y organization.

“So their CEO is going. They haven't done anything to resolve the issue of public trust,” he said. “They've done nothing to put a process in place to guarantee transparency and community stewardship.”

South Toledo residents, county and state officials, and The Blade have repeatedly requested that YMCA officials make public records of credit-card spending by Mr. Alexander, his family members at the Y, and other top Y officials, including Toledo City Councilman Michael Ashford, the Y's head of urban affairs. All requests for the records have been refused by Mr. Alexander and top Y officials.

Mr. Schlatter, in yesterday's letter to YMCA/JCC supporters, noted that during Mr. Alexander's tenure, the association grew “from serving 66,000 people annually in 1989 to more than 300,000 this year, making it the seventh-largest YMCA in the nation in terms of people served.”

He said the annual scholarship campaign grew from $27,000 to — most recently — more than $2 million and helps more than 60,000 people a year.

Mr. Suter said if Mr. Alexander would move his retirement date up to Jan. 1, the salary savings would allow the South Toledo Y to stay open for an additional year.

Contact Mark Zaborney at:mzaborney@theblade.com or 419-724-6182.



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