Cascade Bicycle Club has been knocked off-balance this week after the Board of Directors ousted 13-year Executive Director Chuck Ayers, launching speculation, accusations and uncertainty around the 13,000-member politically-powerful club. I spoke with Tim Hennings, interim Vice-President of the Board, and former-Director Ayers to get a better idea of what is happening at the club and why it all came to such a big change.
First off, the club has no plans to stop being an advocacy club and just concentrate on it’s rides and programming, Hennings said. Cascade is “first and foremost an advocacy club,” he said, and that isn’t changing. The events are important to the club in part because they make the advocacy possible. In that way, they are a means to an end.
“We’re all there to make bicycling safer,” Hennings said of the Board, “We’re all advocates, we’re all cyclists.” The differences between the Board and Ayers lie more with the tone of that advocacy and what the board saw as Ayers’ reluctance to reign-in staff.
“We [the Board] think we need a more reasonable tone in our communications,” said Hennings, saying the club should not say things that will unnecessarily alienate potential supporters. “It’s diplomacy.” He said they are not going to back off on tough issues, but the club should have a “more PC approach.”
Different Managerial Styles
Ayers described his managing style as: “to hire good people, highlight their strengths, try to minimize their weaknesses, and let them go.” Hennings said the Board wants an executive “with more management experience.”
“To use our resources to maximum efficiency, we felt we needed a stronger executive,” said Hennings. And, in part, Ayers agrees that he does not fit the Board’s desire.
“I will readily admit that one of my strengths is not the business style of managing staff,” Ayers said. But “there are various styles of management that can be effective,” and he feels the success of Cascade under his watch proves the effectiveness of his style.
Since taking the helm of the club in 1997, the club has grown almost three-fold from 4,500 to 13,000. It is a strong political player and spends lots of time educating people, bikers and drivers alike, about bicycle projects, laws and safety. It is one of the largest bicycle clubs in the country.
Ayers does not feel that the club’s PC mistakes, of which he admits there were some, were as big a deal as the Board made them out to be. In an interview with the Puget Sound Business Journal, Board President Chris Weiss (a trial lawyer) said some comments by Advocacy Director David Hiller gave Board members heartburn. He pointed to a comment made in January to The Stranger where Hiller said, “I’d love to hang these people up by their toenails at the edge of town and paint ‘killer’ across their chest and let them hang there until the buzzards peck their eyes out,” in reference to people who hit and kill cyclists or pedestrians while driving carelessly.
The comment was inflammatory, sure, but as The Stranger‘s Dominic Holden put it, “in the context of our salty fish wrap, folks don’t bat an eye.” Ayers admitted it wasn’t a very good thing to say, but said he only received a couple emails from members who were upset about it.
“The board was concerned that those one or two emails we would get from members constituted a mass movement,” Ayers said. He disagreed.
“While some poeple think that we’re sometimes a little brash and a little in-their-faces, most people appreciated that we always came to the table with facts,” he said. “David himself is a brilliant guy … and that’s been one of the main attributes for us to be able to achieve what we’ve achieved.”
While both sides may have had managerial disagreements, they both agree that the parting has been rough.
“It was our wish this would go more smoothly,” said Hennings. Ayers said is was a mistake on everyone’s parts not to have a talk about how to transition to new leadership.
“We never sat down and talked about a transition,” he said. “We sat down for months to talk about whether they were going to fire me or not.” The Board had hired a consultant, and Ayers faulted himself, the board and the consultant for not bringing everyone together and talking through the transition.
“From my social work experience, one of the first things you do is try to get everyone together,” he said. While Hennings could not give many details about the Board’s vote to oust Ayers, he said, “It wasn’t a cliffhanger.”
There have also been other rough bumps. In the midst of accusations that the Board is moving the club away from grassroots organizing towards a PC business model approach, which Hennings and the Board has denied, Weiss gave an interview to the Puget Sound Business Journal where he pokes at old wounds (buzzard-pecking pun intended). The PSBJ‘s readership is not exactly known for its love of the two-wheeled, after all.
In their announcement of the leadership change, the Board did not mention “transportation” anywhere, focusing more on bicycles as recreation. While this may have been accidental, it and the self-deprecating appearance in the PSBJ did not exactly give the impression that the club is committed to tough bicycle advocacy and staunch defense of those riding on these sometimes rough streets every day.
The new leadership certainly has some work to do ensuring their members of the club’s commitment to tough, sometimes unpopular advocacy. It also seems like unfortunate timing to have the club distracted during election season as Cascade advocates for bike-friendly candidates.
But Ayers is hopeful the club will remain strong.
“If this tears it apart a little bit, I believe and I hope the club will mend,” he said. And if this prompts Cascade members to have real dialogue about the club and its mission, that could be a good thing.
One thing is for sure: The annual members’ meeting October 21 is sure to be a little more interesting than a typical Cascade meeting.