The East Isthmus Neighborhood Planning Council held an emergency meeting Wednesday night to elect new officers for its board. And the group's executive director, Lilly Irvin-Vitela, is leaving after only three months on the job.
"What became clear to me is that there are questions about the viability and sustainability of this organization," says Irvin-Vitela, adding that the director's job was her "dream job" but "the situation as it actually existed has been less than ideal."
Irvin-Vitela says the council's meetings were often too focused on internal matters and less on community outreach. And she calls the group's fundraising goals "overly optimistic." Its proposed budget for 2007 is $91,000. But with the city of Madison chipping in just $41,000, the group would have to raise the rest on its own.
"I was concerned about how that would affect the work on the ground, if we had such a heavy emphasis on fundraising," says Irvin-Vitela.
Lindsey Lee, the group's former treasurer, says the board offered the director's job to someone else, who declined. "Her opinion [on the organization's finances] was the same as Lilly's," he says.
Lee notes that the group can't afford to have two permanent staff members. At Wednesday's meeting, he proposed laying off the group's staff and making the planning council an all-volunteer organization instead.
"We just don't have the money and the only way to get the money is through fundraising or grant writing," he says. "Doing fundraising drives people away because they don't come to the planning council to do that."
But members rejected Lee's suggestion, tentatively deciding to keep at least one paid staff person. "We're confident going down to one staff person will help" with the financial problems, says Ben Winter, the interim co-chair.
Irvin-Vitela fears these developments could give ammunition to politicians who have tried to eliminate the groups' city funding in the past. "People are concerned about how this could affect the other planning councils," she says. "I think this work matters. But it wasn't clear that the organization as it existed was capable of supporting me and the work."
Lee questions whether the planning council is really the best use for city funding. He notes that Park Street Partners, on the city's south side, does work similar to the planning councils with no budget and no staff, only volunteers. The city's money, he says, might be "better spent on a neighborhood center or a Boys and Girls Club."