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Two Encinitas YMCA Board Members Forced Out Over Youth Membership Dispute

Two board members of the Ecke YMCA in Encinitas, including the daughter of branch founder Paul Ecke, have been ousted after they objected to a decision to eliminate discounted youth memberships at all of San Diego County's YMCAs.

Lizbeth Ecke, who also is the granddaughter of the Y's namesake, Magdalena Ecke, says she and fellow board member, Bob Ayers, were asked to “temporarily resign” from the Encinitas YMCA’s board of management earlier this year. Like Lizbeth, Ayers has deep family ties to the North County Y.

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Board members Lizbeth Ecke and Bob Ayers say they were forced off the board at the Ecke YMCA after objecting to a decision to eliminate discounted youth memberships at all of San Diego County's 12 YMCAs.

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Letter Lizbeth Ecke and Bob Ayers sent to corporate board of YMCA of San Diego County

Letter Lizbeth Ecke and Bob Ayers sent to corporate board of YMCA of San Diego County

Letter Lizbeth Ecke and Bob Ayers sent to corporate board of YMCA of San Diego County

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They say the request to step down came after the two wrote a letter to the YMCA of San Diego County's corporate board of directors questioning a policy change they believed would cut off thousands of kids from recreation programs at the county’s 12 YMCAs.

“I was trying to ask questions,” said Ecke, whose family earned a fortune by making poinsettias famous as a Christmas plant. “If there isn’t somebody asking some hard questions, you can go down a path and it might not always be the right path.”

Ecke and Ayers challenged a 2013 decision to eliminate youth membership discounts. For about $80 to $100 a year, children 12 and under could get access to various YMCA programs, including swimming, gymnastics and martial arts.

But under the new rules, children in that age group can't join the YMCA without being part of a family membership, which costs about $1,000 annually. These youth membership discounts went away for the entire county last July except at the Ecke YMCA, which ends its program this month.

Ayers believes the change will drive away many of the 2,400 kids who have youth membership discounts at the Ecke YMCA.

“It will be a tremendous financial barrier for them,” he said. “Youth are a very fundamental part of the mission of the YMCA. It didn’t make sense that we would do anything that would affect youth at our YMCA.”

Photo credit: Beverly Woodworth

Former Ecke YMCA board members Bob Ayers and Lizbeth Ecke look at childhood photographs, April 23, 2015.

Parent Lauren King bought her 5-year-old daughter Sydney a youth membership two years ago for tumble and dance classes.

“A family membership is not ideal for us,” King said. “We can’t afford it.”

The YMCA offers financial assistance for those who are eligible, but King is indignant at the idea.

“It’s a little bit insulting to apply for financial assistance for a dance class,” she said. “If I can’t afford to take my daughter to dance class, then I’m going to go elsewhere. I’m not going to ask somebody for a donation for my cause.”

Ayers said the new policy also doesn’t make financial sense for the Ecke YMCA.

Many of the 2,400 children who have youth memberships at the Ecke YMCA also generate additional revenue for the organization by paying, or about $1.7 million annually, for various special programs, he said. On average, each spends $720 on programs a year, Ayers said.

If even just 30 percent of the kids who had youth membership discounts decide to leave, Ayers said, the Ecke YMCA stands to lose nearly $1 million a year.

Ayers said he’s asked the YMCA CEO for San Diego County, Baron Herdelin-Doherty, for information on how many children in youth memberships at other YMCAs converted to family memberships but has received no answers.

Photo by Katie Schoolov

Baron Herdelin-Doherty, chief executive officer of the YMCA of San Diego County, talks about the Y's programs and memberships, December 2014.

In December, Herdelin-Doherty told KPBS that memberships were up in the county.

“Today, after four months of operation with the new strategy, participation is up 8 percent countywide,” he said. “If I wanted to put a number on that, that’s about 10,000 more people.”

But it’s not clear where new memberships are coming from.

Since 2013, two new YMCAs have opened, a YMCA official said. Herdelin-Doherty's office also said that between November 2012 and November 2013 — before the new policy took effect — nearly 12,000 families joined the YMCA countywide.

KPBS asked for a breakdown of family membership increases by branch, but the YMCA denied the request.

In addition to elimination of the youth membership discount, Ayers and Ecke expressed concerns in their letter to the YMCA's corporate board about what they called the “re-direction” of money from branches to the organization's headquarters, and the lack of “fiscally sound” financial analysis and projections.

Herdelin-Doherty declined to be interviewed by KPBS a second time, after Ecke and Ayers sent the letter to the YMCA's corporate board. In a statement, he said:

As a 133 year old San Diego organization with over 500 community members serving on our branch boards of management, it is unfortunate, but understandable that two former board members were not fully knowledgeable about the strategic direction of the YMCA of San Diego County. Additionally, we are proud of our efficient, transparent and sound fiscal policies and practices.

Our vision is clear. It is outlined in our 10 year vision plan to serve even more families in a variety of programs that help people reach their fullest potential. For those who don’t come to the Y with a family, we want to be their family.

Our primary goal remains to strengthen the San Diego community through programs in our three focus areas of youth development, healthy living and social responsibility.

Ecke and Ayers had hoped their January letter to the board’s more than four dozen members might prompt at least one of them to respond.

“But nobody did,” Ecke said. “Well, that’s not true — I heard from two board members who said, `I’m no longer on the board.’”

KPBS reached out to several of the board members. No one agreed to comment.

Ecke said she and Ayers wrote the letter because they each felt they were in a unique position to voice their concerns.

“We grew up, my brother, sister and myself, being at the Y, being involved at the Y,” Ecke said. “It’s what we did. It’s what we knew. It was just a big part of our life.”

Ecke’s father, Paul Ecke, recruited Ayers' father, Rollie Ayers, from Los Angeles to be the first executive director of the Encinitas YMCA.

“I worked for the YMCA,” Bob Ayers said. “I mowed its lawns when I was in high school. I was a day camp director.”

Ecke and Ayers said they were asked to resign by the Ecke YMCA’s executive director, Susan Hight, after they refused to guarantee they wouldn't challenge YMCA policy changes again. Both eventually quit.

Hight did not return a call seeking comment.

“There were no accusations made in the letter,” Ayers said. “We’re just asking questions. And by golly, the mentorship I had and Lizbeth had with our fathers, who built this Y, is you’re entitled to ask good questions. And you ask them of the people who can give you answers — and we did.”

Ayers and Ecke said too much was at stake for kids served by the YMCA for them to remain silent.

Photo by Nicholas McVicker

A sign is shown in front of the Magdalena Ecke YMCA in Encinitas, May 2015.

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