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Details Emerge In Investigation Of YMCA Of San Diego County Management

Peggy Pico speaks with Amita Sharma about an investigation into the YMCA of San Diego County.

The YMCA of San Diego County is facing turmoil at the top. KPBS previously reported that the YMCA’s corporate board had hired a consultant to oversee an investigation into mismanagement allegations. Here are edited excerpts from an interview with KPBS Investigative reporter Amita Sharma.

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.

The YMCA of San Diego County is facing turmoil at the top. KPBS previously reported that the YMCA’s corporate board had hired a consultant to oversee an investigation into mismanagement allegations. KPBS investigative reporter Amita Sharma, who has been following this story, explains what's happening at the nonprofit.

Question: You’ve reported that one of the allegations against YMCA CEO and President Baron Herdelin-Doherty and some of his executives has been poor treatment of staff. What more have you learned?

Sources, who requested anonymity because they did not have permission to speak, say the investigator has questioned them about turnover among high-level staff. They say several long-time, well-regarded executive directors at YMCA branches and other senior managers have resigned or been forced to resign for reasons that remain unexplained. In some cases, the exits included confidentiality agreements and possible payouts, according to public documents. For example, Calista Davis, who was senior vice president and a chief human resources officer, left with a nearly $236,000 payment. Alfredo Velasco, who was the executive director at the Palomar YMCA, left with what appears to be a $136,000 payment.

We wanted to talk to Herdelin-Doherty about this and other aspects of the investigation. But a YMCA spokeswoman declined to speak until after the investigation was complete.

Question:The YMCA in San Diego County is a large organization with several thousand employees, so it can’t be unusual that employees leave or are ousted. What’s notable about the exits?

In 2010, the YMCA put out a five-year strategic plan. It included a goal to hire more minorities that reflected some of the more diverse communities in south San Diego and in the southern region of the county. But sources say several of the executive directors and other senior managers who have left have been bilingual minorities. And sources say many of them have been replaced by people who were Anglo and did not know a second language.

An internal document leaked to me also shows that the goal was to increase diversity between 2010 and 2015 from 22 percent to 30 percent. But in the past five years, diversity among upper managers has actually dropped from 22 percent to 20 percent or lower.

Question: What else is being investigated at the YMCA?

Contracts with vendors. According to documents, the YMCA has a policy that requires its branches to buy 85 percent of its cardio exercise equipment from Precor. Sources say the policy came about at the same time the YMCA’s regional vice president was in a relationship with a sales representative at Precor.

Secondly, there’s been a problem with some of the new software designed by a company called Daxko. This comes after an internal task force recommended a company other than Daxko. But a YMCA executive told the corporate board that staff had actually recommended -- you guessed it, Daxko.

Question: So what does all this have to do with people who use the YMCA?

The San Diego YMCA is the second largest in the country with 15 branches. It’s the seventh biggest employer in the county and served more than 400,000 people in the county last year through its childcare, sports and other programs. Sources say strife at the top has distracted from the Y’s mission. They say that Y membership is not growing as fast it should be, there isn’t enough public outreach and there’s too much focus on turning the Y into a spa-fitness type of place rather than reaching people – poor kids and others who really need the programs the Y offers.

Herdelin-Doherty maintains YMCA membership grew 14 percent last year. He also says that family memberships have shot up 22 percent.

Question: What’s the status of the investigation?

Sources say it’s finished and will be presented to the board today. That board is supposed to supervise Herdelin-Doherty. The investigation has put him under scrutiny. It’s not clear if the turnover of upper management is concerning to the board. Its members have refused to reply to interview requests. Sources accuse the board of complacency, of being asleep at the helm. They say board members have ignored complaints about Herdelin-Doherty’s leadership, indulged him, and may yet keep the findings of this investigation to themselves. At the same time, the anonymity of the people who spoke to the investigator is not being guaranteed.

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