United Way of Greater Cincinnati CEO dispute is resolved, but turmoil remains

Employees call for board chair to resign

CINCINNATI -- The friendly separation reached by United Way of Greater Cincinnati CEO Michael Johnson and his board of directors has not resolved the turmoil within the agency, which raises millions of dollars for nonprofits that serve more than 300,000 people each year.

During a staff meeting Thursday morning in which interim CEO Ross Meyer asked employees to speak their truth, they expressed anger, frustration and feelings of betrayal, according to a staff member's secret recording of the meeting obtained by WCPO. Another employee who attended the meeting vouched for the authenticity of the recording.

Several employees called for the resignation of United Way board chair Julia Poston; one drew applause when he asked her to leave the meeting, which she did.

A letter from United Way employees sent to WCPO Thursday evening also called for change.

"We would welcome all members of the Executive Committee to consider resigning, and we demand the removal of Julia Poston as board chair," the letter said. A total of 30 employees signed the letter -- 25 with their names and five more as "anonymous."

United Way of Greater Cincinnati employees call for board chair's resignation by WCPO Web Team on Scribd

Poston responded to WCPO's request for comment with the following statement:

“I am deeply committed to doing what is best for the greater Cincinnati community, and the United Way community and its constituents to move forward constructively. I appreciate the deeply held feelings of the members of the UWGC staff who spoke with me today. Listening to them was precisely why I attended the meeting. I know that it comes from a place of passion for meeting the needs of those in poverty in our community, a passion that I share. I wish I could have shared more to address their questions, but due to terms of the settlement agreement with Michael, I am not at liberty to do so.”

Johnson accused Poston of making "subtle threats" to him and creating a "hostile work environment."

Those accusations became public when an email Johnson sent to United Way's entire board of directors on Oct. 26 became public Monday evening. The controversy roiled the community until Wednesday, when United Way issued a statement that Johnson and the board had agreed to an amicable separation.

Cincinnati Councilwoman Tamaya Dennard issued a statement Thursday calling on Poston to resign effective immediately.

"Mr. Johnson was constantly being undermined by Board Chair Julia Poston and was relegated to tasks and procedures that his predecessor wasn't," Dennard's statement said. "No one wants to work in that kind of environment. We are sad to see him return to Madison, Wisconsin but we wish him well."

Other community leaders have pushed United Way's board of directors to use the controversy as an opportunity to discuss Cincinnati's racial divide.

"He was sent here for a reason and a season," said Ozie Davis, a Cincinnati Public Schools board member and community activist. "We're focused on what he and his situation have really highlighted: a major disconnect between the 1 percent and those they serve."

The whole situation has given Cincinnati a "black eye," Davis said.

Ozie Davis

"What has happened over the past four days is absolutely outrageous," he said. "It hurts us. It hurts our brand."

Davis has been working with community activists Iris Roley, Vanessa White and others to schedule a meeting next week with United Way's board of directors or executive committee.

That meeting hasn't been scheduled yet, Davis said, adding that they're "recruiting" for more people to join the effort.

Meanwhile, Davis said he has friends who are black men from out of town who are wondering how long they will last here.

"I've got dozens of friends who are from here that couldn't wait to get out of here and are calling me and saying, ‘I told you. I told you,'" he said. "I'm a firm believer that we have what it takes to overcome our demons."

Johnson, who became United Way's first black CEO July 9, will finish his tenure there Nov. 15. Meyer told employees at the Thursday staff meeting that Johnson likely would remain on leave until then.

Within 24 hours of Wednesday's announcement, the Boys & Girls Club of Dane County in Madison, Wisconsin, announced Johnson would be returning to the organization as its CEO effective Dec. 15. He had led the Boys & Girls Club since 2010 before accepting the United Way job in Cincinnati.

Davis said he's eager to visit Johnson there.

"I can't wait to get to Madison and meet those people who have been so supportive of him," Davis said. "I dream of an environment where people are that supportive of me."

Editor’s note: WCPO does not ordinarily use anonymous sources. However, WCPO staff members use anonymous sources in rare circumstances where such sources are the only way to obtain information vital to the public good. WCPO staff members have vetted these sources and believe the information they provide to be accurate and in good faith.

Lucy May writes about the people, places and issues that define our region – to celebrate what makes the Tri-State great and shine a spotlight on issues we need to address. Childhood poverty is an important focus for her and for WCPO. To read more stories about childhood poverty, go to www.wcpo.com/poverty.

To read more stories by Lucy, go to www.wcpo.com/may. To reach her, email lucy.may@wcpo.com. Follow her on Twitter @LucyMayCincy.

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