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A recently completed third-party investigation into the Grand Rapids Community Media Center, which manages the Wealthy Theatre, found no evidence of “board negligence or of financial improprieties.” A recently completed third-party investigation into the Grand Rapids Community Media Center, which manages the Wealthy Theatre, found no evidence of “board negligence or of financial improprieties.” PHOTO BY MIBIZ STAFF

GR Community Media Center completes investigation into claims against leadership, withholds findings

BY Sunday, February 13, 2022 06:00pm

GRAND RAPIDS — A third-party investigation into the Grand Rapids Community Media Center found no evidence of “board negligence or of financial improprieties” following claims by former staff and board members. 

However, the organization is declining to publicly release the report in part because of concerns over potential future litigation.

Meanwhile, Community Media Center Executive Director Linda Gellasch — the target of multiple allegations of financial wrongdoing and mistreatment by former staff and board members — plans to retire by the end of June after 20 years at the organization.

Founded in 1980 to provide community programming across various media platforms, the Community Media Center oversees the operations of the Wealthy Theatre, 88.1 FM WYCE, Grand Rapids Cable Access, and The Rapidian, a community-based online news site.

Grand Rapids-based law firm Warner Norcross + Judd LLP completed its roughly three-month investigation in January after being hired by the GRCMC board to investigate claims against Gellasch and other staff. MiBiz first reported the allegations in October 2021. 

According to GRCMC board leadership, investigators interviewed 11 people who were involved with or had knowledge about dozens of allegations that were anonymously posted — as well as shared with city officials — involving the alleged mismanagement of funds, inappropriate spending and retaliation against former directors and staff. The investigation also examined emails and documents going back to 2016.

In addition to financial-related allegations, former staffers and board members claimed a lack of transparency between Gellasch and board members when employees had come forward with personnel concerns.

The report did “uncover areas for improvement in internal policies and procedures and staff training,” Board President Jason Wheeler said in a statement.

“The board remains committed to the GRCMC mission and looks forward to implementing operational changes that will address these issues, enhance our internal culture and operations, and help us better serve our community,” Wheeler said.

He elaborated in an interview that the changes are “basically to have consistency in the way we report instances between the board and staff leadership.”

Disappointment

Former employees and board members had made claims against the organization through various formats, including anonymous and on-the-record blog posts and interviews. Some former board members — including Kelly Koning, a former GRCMC board president and daughter of the organization’s founder, Dirk Koning — previously said she left the organization out of concern for “the direction of where the organization was going.”

An anonymously posted document that was shared with Grand Rapids city officials and detailed dozens of allegations “has created a lot of damage to the organization in the past six months,” Wheeler said. 

The allegations also prompted an audit by the city, which provides franchise fees to the organization. The audit “found no evidence of misuse of public funds, which was our primary concern and interest in the matter,” Assistant City Manager Doug Matthews previously told MiBiz. The city’s separate “operational and performance review” of the GRCMC was not immediately available as of press time.

However, three former GRCMC staffers say they are disappointed in the board’s unwillingness to share the investigation’s findings, which they say continues a pattern of secrecy.

“The ongoing unwillingness to be transparent is deeply worrisome,” Jessica Alverson, who was fired last year after a roughly two-month stint as Wealthy Theatre director, said in an email.

“Their stated belief in the necessity of free speech is so clouded by these contradictory actions of the last five years and it’s painfully telling,” Alverson added.

Holly Bechiri, former managing editor of The Rapidian, echoed Alverson’s transparency concerns as well as a feeling that the board continues to disregard former staffers’ questions.

“Over the years, leadership repeatedly ignored our concerns and tried to silence us. So we went on to share these concerns with the Board, then foundation leaders, and City officials,” Bechiri said in an email. “Over and over we have tried to protect the organization we love from further harm. We kept trying. We kept not being believed.”

Bechiri added that “Grand Rapids is gonna Grand Rapids,” and that “leaders will not be held accountable, issues will be swept under the rug, organizations will wait for the next story to distract the community, and soon enough we will all move on, right?” 

Amy LeFebre, senior director at public relations firm Truscott Rossman that was hired by the GRCMC last year, said neither a copy of the report nor a summary of its findings will be released because it includes “sensitive personnel issues, and there has been public threat of litigation pertaining to these issues.” (Wheeler said that an individual posted on social media that they might be searching for an attorney.)

Former Wealthy Theatre Director Erin Wilson, who worked at GRCMC for 14 years before leaving in late October 2017, said GRCMC’s intention to be forthcoming with the community “requires accountability and reconciliation. The community deserves to know the findings of this four-month investigation. CMC founder Dirk Koning said people deserve access to information, because information is power. Secrecy as a means to power is the antithesis of CMC. Power without accountability has potential for profound harm.”

Gellasch said she has considered her upcoming retirement and departure from GRCMC for more than a year. She doesn’t intend to renew her contract, which ends on June 30.

“Regarding my planned retirement, I’m excited for my next chapter,” Gellasch said in an email. “I’ve been thinking about my retirement from CMC for more than a year now, with my 20th anniversary with the organization coming up in March. I have loved my two decades here at CMC, and the timing is right for me to move on.” 

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