Response to Sharon Gentling / Civic Theatre

So you are disappointed by the current status of Rochester Civic Theatre (RCT); so am I.

While there appears to be an attempt to blame the circumstances on myself and others, the leadership of the RCT needs to accept responsibility for their repeated failures. Sharon Gentling’s most recent rant in the Post Bulletin was missing some important context and deserve a fact based response.

Among the facts that she conveniently left out was that she is the spouse of one of the board members directly responsible for past and current mismanagement. Her husband also engaged in a serious financial conflict of interest with the RCT. Also forgotten the fact that she and Greg made illegal campaign contributions against me in 2016. While my criticisms are aimed at the board, I will note that I have heard from at least one board member that they didn’t know how the board was responding and did not agree with their response.

Because we passed the Transparency Act of 2019 at the very first meeting after getting a new Mayor and council; anyone can go back and watch the oversight meeting where we uncovered what was going on at RCT. Go ahead and watch it and come to your own conclusions. That link is right here.

One of my responsibilities as part of the Rochester Outside Agency Oversight Committee was to dig into the financial and operational performance of RCT since they oversee public facilities and funds. I was hoping to find an organization that had recovered from past missteps and righted the ship. Instead I found gross negligence from the board of directors, abysmal mismanagement of public funds, and a mentality from the board of directors to try to place the blame on others, including the director they hired and oversaw.

After Board Members mishandled sexual harassment by a previous Executive Director (ED); there was a sense that the leadership of the RCT was going to change. That didn’t happen because the board quickly and quietly held a meeting where they took away voting rights from members. As such the current board does not answer to anyone and the results are a direct result of their actions.

The future of the RCT is not yet set, but any additional support from the city must be accompanied by a new contract, competent leadership, and accountability. I believe the city should continue to help the arts thrive in Rochester, but we have no obligation to support an organization that repeatedly fails, and won’t accept personal responsibility.

Beyond the funds, organizations that operate in public spaces have an obligation to protect vulnerable users. The previous ED was rightfully terminated for sexual harassment. Rather than protecting the victim, the victim was led to re-engage with that ED. This re-victimization represented negligence on the part of key board members. The board responded to this situation by not removing the offending board members and taking away the memberships ability to do the same. 

Recently we learned this type of failed leadership continued. The Theatre let Kevin Miller maintain a bed in the basement of the theater and children to play in that space. Besides for being illegal, this lack of boundaries shows that the organization has learned nothing about setting boundaries to protect vulnerable users. RCT members were mad at me for saying I wouldn’t want my children in that space. 

Despite numerous lease violations, the RCT claimed that they had not violated the lease. The City of Rochester provided numerous instances of lease violations which have been corrected for the time being. These violations included a failure to pay bills and inappropriate sub-leasing of space. The contract that the City has with RCT is poor and should be rewritten to better protect our public assets. We had similarly poor contacts with Experience Rochester and the Rochester Amateur Sports Commission. The new agreements crafted by current staff better protect the City. Outside Organizations receiving City funds should be required to enter new contracts to replace the old.

You can’t really overstate how poorly the RCT has managed its finances. As of today we still don’t know how bad it is because the organization can not provide reliable financial records. We do know that a quarter of a million was spent on professional actors that RCT could not afford. We know that many vendors including the City, State, and IRS were not paid. We knew the RCT was placed on a “do not sell” alcohol list. We know that staff was not paid a number of times. We know that board members made inappropriate personal loans to the organization causing a substantial conflict of interest. We know that the board did not consider or review financial performance until it was far too late.

The RCT Board of Directors followed the dismissal of the previous ED by hiring another ED with a questionable past. Despite a history of lying on his resume at a previous position, the RCT Board did not provide any oversight or checks and balances on their new ED. The board took no actions as numerous red flags arose. The Board wants to point fingers at the ED for the problems, but their lack of oversight makes them equally culpable.

This is a pretty serious list of issues, but the biggest one is that the RCT Board & Staff withheld important information from the City. RCT knew that they had an obligation to inform the city when they took out an emergency operating loan. They chose to cover this up. When asked about vendors and staff not being paid, the RCT lied and denied that there were any issues, describing those raising the concerns as “sour grapes.” Because of my suspicions I asked for a very specific set of documents and didn’t receive them. The documents that I did receive still looked bad, but reflected a full infusion of 2020 funds to pay some 2019 bills.

The same board that ran the Theatre into the ground once, seized total control of the previously civic organization and ran it into the ground a second time. The RCT response was to put together a “petition” that called me out by name and attempted to paint me as a villain (though some board members claim they were not consulted on the petition). I reject that caricature, as I did the investigation that brought all of this to light. I am the messenger, I did not cause the RCT Board to run the organization into the ground. That they are still looking for someone to blame is an indication that they should not be trusted to manage public funds or facilities prior to major changes, increased oversight and accountability to membership. 

I look forward to continuing to support responsible organizations that connect people with the arts.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.