ELKTON — The longtime leaders of the Elkton Chamber & Alliance stepped down suddenly last week, leaving the chamber waiting until its September meeting to formally fill those positions and address questions raised over the organization’s executive director search.
Larry Crouse and Roger Owens, local businessmen who guided the organization that serves as the town chamber of commerce and Main Street manager for more than 20 years, announced their resignations at the end of the board of directors’ Aug. 6 meeting. Crouse was the board chairman and Owens was the vice chairman at the time, although they both served as president at different times.
Both men told the Whig that after decades of service, it was time to leave the future of the chamber to new members.
“I feel that it is time for me to step aside,” Crouse told the Whig. “I have done my time served and I’m ready to move aside and allow new people to come in with fresher, newer ideas and continue to grow Main Street, the town and throughout its surroundings.”
“No matter what you do, if you do it long it enough, you’re going to need new ideas to either excite people into another direction or let people take it into a different direction,” Owens added.
Crouse and Owens resigned at the end of a meeting where the board had apparently discussed a letter written by chamber board member and Elkton Town Attorney John Downs that outlines his concerns on the process of selecting the the new executive director of the Elkton Chamber & Alliance.
Mary Jo Jablonski served as the Elkton Chamber & Alliance’s executive director for 19 years until she died in late February. Her longtime assistant, Jessica Price, was named Jablonski’s successor in June by the Alliance’s board of directors.
Downs’s letter, obtained by the Whig in a Maryland Public Information Act request, was written on June 12 to Crouse, the board chairman, and notes that the attorney has “seen no coherent strategy” on how to select Jablonski’s replacement.
In the wake of Jablonski’s sudden death, the Elkton Chamber & Alliance board declined to immediately name an acting executive director as Jablonski had planned out many events through Fall Fest, scheduled for September. But when state officials put pressure on the organization to name a replacement to handle state grant applications, Price was named acting executive director in March.
Downs wrote in his letter that he requested that the June agenda include a discussion of the replacement of the executive director. That item was not apparently included, though.
Instead, Crouse led a discussion about the chamber’s staffing during the chairman’s report segment of the meeting after Downs had left early. Meeting minutes show that the board then held a vote that officially named Price the permanent executive director.
“I was stunned to find out that you called for an election ... This is HIGHLY irregular and not consistent with the Bylaws and Robert’s Rules of Order,” Downs wrote. “Therefore, it is my opinion that the election was out of order and invalid, and the results of that election void.”
Within the Alliance’s bylaws, there is no direct mention of the executive director position, its duties or how to select a replacement executive director if the situation arises. The chamber board’s March meeting minutes show a subcommittee had pointed out these flaws in the bylaws, but no amendments were considered as of June.
Downs later told the Whig that although the bylaws are unclear about the selection of the executive director, an item of that importance should have been listed on the agenda as a separate item so that board members would have known ahead of time and make arrangements to be there for discussion.
Board member John Palmer, like Downs, also left early, and Board Treasurer Brad Carrillo along with board members Dr. Richard C. Szumel and Ray Walters were absent, according to the meeting minutes.
“The board should have been given notice for such an important event so that we can have the opportunity to discuss — and also for Brad, John and I to arrange our schedules to be there so not only could we have a vote, but for a motion and a second so there could be more discussion,” he said.
Elkton Chamber & Alliance board meeting minutes in March, weeks after Jablonski’s death, show the board had acknowledged that “quite a few people” were lobbying for the position.
Meeting minutes between March and June do not show any further discussion on the search process for a new executive director until the board voted to approve Price as the new executive director.
Downs’s letter also warns that the process would “leave the Alliance open to potential litigation from would-be applicants and the town to criticism from taxpayers.”
The Elkton Alliance was founded as a nonprofit to channel funding from the Maryland Department of Housing and Community Development to spark revitalization in downtown Elkton. The organization later merged with the town’s chamber of commerce, but continues to seek state grants to make downtown thrive. The Elkton Mayor and Board of Commissioners also regularly funds the Elkton Chamber & Alliance about $100,000 in its annual budgets.
Downs’s letter ends by informing Crouse that he has requested the mayor and commissioners “go into executive session to advise them of these irregularities.”
Mayor Rob Alt confirmed that Downs did make town commissioners aware of his concerns regarding the executive director election, but said that he had no opinion on it.
“It’s their call how they conduct their business, and I’m not sure how they consistently do business and whether they have to vote items specifically on the agenda,” Alt told the Whig. “I think we have a fantastic board and I am extremely comfortable with Jessica as the executive director.”
Last week, both Crouse and Owens denied that the allegations had anything to do with their resignations. When asked about the letter, Crouse said that “it was Downs’s opinion.”
“As far as I’m concerned, the right person is in the right position,” Crouse said.
The Elkton Chamber & Alliance held a special meeting on Aug. 8 to discuss how the organization will institute new leaders to fill the void. It was decided that the two remaining executive board members, Carrillo and Cindy Fetterolf, would serve as interim chairman and interim vice chairman, respectively.
The board will meet in September to hold a formal election to fill the remaining terms of the chamber’s executive board.
“I speak for the entire board of directors when saying this is a significant loss for the Alliance, and that we appreciate the decades of time and effort that (Crouse and Owens) have contributed to the organization and the betterment of the Town of Elkton,” Carrillo said in a prepared statement. “We wish them all the best on both their personal and professional journeys.”
Carrillo told the Whig on Thursday that during a regular board meeting on Aug. 6, the board had agreed that its vote on Price as executive director in June was appropriate. It did not hold another vote to confirm whether the election was valid.
Carrillo had no comment on Downs’s letter, because although it was placed at the end of the August agenda for discussion, the board did not feel it was not properly discussed since Downs had to once again leave the meeting early to attend to court cases. Carrillo expected that it would be discussed fully at the September meeting, as well as to vote to officially accept Crouse’s and Owens’s resignations.
Crouse and Owens have contributed a combined 40 years worth of work with the Elkton Chamber & Alliance, including the town’s mainstay events and ribbon cuttings for new businesses.
Crouse thanked Dwight Hair for getting him involved with the chamber and Jablonski for all the years of her service and her mentorship.
“It was a privilege to work with her, side by side, as many years as I got to,” he told the Whig. “The Alliance, there are a lot of great people I had the privilege of working beside and it was a privilege to watch all these businesses come in and take off.”
Owens reflected that in his 20 years with the Alliance, he had many stories and put in a lot of sweat hours by hauling tables and sound equipment to various spots at town. He said that the Alliance had a blueprint set with future events, as most were planned and the grant writing for next year is almost done.
“It’s not like we’re leaving them in the lurches,” Owens added. “We’re not walking away and disappearing, we’re just not going to be in charge of the board of directors anymore.”
Both Downs and Alt said that Crouse and Owens had worked tirelessly for years to improve the chamber and the town as well.
“It shouldn’t be surprising that they want time off for personal matters and to attend their businesses,” Downs said.
“They both put in more than 1,000 volunteer hours,” Alt said in a separate interview. “I hope that this is a short-term change in their lives, and they will certainly be missed.”