Leadership of largest bicycle club in America overthrown in bloodless coup

by Eric Shalit on October 30, 2010

Leadership of Seattle’s 13,000 member Cascade Bicycle Club, was recently seized by board members in what is commonly referred to in corporate America as a ‘hostile takeover’ and elsewhere as a ‘bloodless coup’. Speaking only in limited scripted press releases, the Board led by corporate attorney Chris Weiss, has chosen not to communicate openly and honestly with membership about its true motivations or plans for the future of the largest bicycle club in the US.

Highly regarded long-term CBC Executive Director Chuck Ayers, was abruptly fired by the Board several weeks ago. The Board’s initial press release gave the appearance that Ayers was dismissed due to serious impropriety. Under pressure from membership, whose loyalty to Ayers was seriously misjudged, the Board temporarily rehired Ayers on a 6-month contract, with the expressed purpose that he stop a membership-driven board recall, and assist in training his as yet to be discovered successor. While this action provided no resolution, it signaled that Ayers had committed no criminal impropriety.

During the CBC annual meeting, held on Oct. 21 and attended by several hundred members and media, Chris Weiss spoke for the Board and said he could give no details about the reasons for Ayers’ firing because it was a “private personnel matter”. This was met by an audible mass groan from the audience.

Board President airs dirty laundry in interview

I’ve been following the ins-&-outs of this fiasco from the beginning. The strong aroma of corporate-speak bullshit only piqued my interest in trying to figure out what was really going on. To my surprise I stumbled upon the proverbial ‘smoking gun’. This was Board President Chris Weiss’ interview in the Puget Sound Business Journal in which he was asked to comment on the reasons for Ayers’ firing.

From the PSBJ article: “But is Ayers a casualty of Seattle’s bicycle wars? No, says Seattle trial lawyer Chris Weiss, chairman of the bicycle club’s 11-member board of directors. There were some differences between Ayers and the board on management issues, Weiss said, but he said he could not talk about them because they are a private personnel matter.

But it turns out that Ayers’ departure also is related to public comments made by another employee, David Hiller, advocacy director for the Cascade Bicycle Club. Weiss said the board discussed the comments with Ayers, but they did not stop. The most highly charged comments came in a January article posted by The Stranger news website about a proposal to toughen penalties for careless motorists culpable in accidents that kill cyclists or pedestrians. “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,” Hiller was quoted as saying by The Stranger. Weiss said the comments caused heartburn for the board and were counterproductive to the club’s efforts to promote its cycling agenda.”

Smoking Gun?

Back to why this is a smoking gun. On one hand Weiss refused to comment on the reasons for Ayers’ firing, saying it’s a private personnel matter. On the other hand he was airing dirty laundry about another CBC employee to the PSBJ. Typically, Board members try to downplay negative incidents in the media. In this case the Board President chose to amplify the negative connotations of something David Hiller said not to the PSBJ but to The Stranger. I thought this was bizarre and unprofessional behavior, but also a significant clue.

Was it possible the Board demanded Chuck Ayers fire David Hiller? Was Board President Chris Weiss’ bad-mouthing of Hiller to the press a tactic for justifying Ayers’ termination and Hiller’s future firing? It turns out only the Executive Director (Chuck Ayers) reports to the Board. The staff reports to the Executive Director. The board could not fire David Hiller. Only Chuck Ayers could fire Hiller. Was Ayers given an ultimatum to fire Hiller or be fired himself?

Buzzards on the edge of town?

David Hiller’s colorful remark was clearly sarcastic and well-suited to The Stranger. Everyone knows there are no buzzards on the edge of town (where is the edge of town for that matter?).

A reader just informed me there are buzzards on the edge of town, and the edge of town is Factoria.

In the Stranger article, Hiller’s quote is preceded by “Hiller and other cycling advocates have long wished that motorists who carelessly kill cyclists and pedestrians couldn’t get off with the $250 traffic citation prescribed by current law.” I’m assuming the idea of punishing reckless drivers who maim or kill is held by most cyclists. Hiller expressed that in a thick & zesty style, but he expressed the idea clearly and passionately.

“If I get fired for protecting my staff, then so be it!”

Board President Chris Weiss claims Hiller’s words in The Stranger were inappropriate and offensive. At the annual meeting, he also stated he was incensed that the article was accompanied by a photo of Critical Mass, which reflected poorly on CBC.

When confronted directly at the CBC annual meeting with the question “Was Chuck Ayers fired for refusing to fire David Hiller?” Chris Weiss answered an emphatic “No”. Chuck Ayers then stood, took the microphone and said “If I get fired for protecting my staff, then so be it”.

Chuck Ayers’ willingness to fall on his own sword, rather than feed Hiller to the lions was valiant behavior rarely seen outside Lord of the Rings. Applause for Ayers quickly turned to anger at Board President Chris Weiss, who had stated only minutes earlier that the Board had never issued Ayers an ultimatum to fire Hiller or be fired.

So, in his quest to get rid of Hiller, Weiss was willing to throw the baby out with the bath water, fire Chuck Ayers, and destabilize the organization. Should membership of a bicycle club, a non-profit organization feel entitled to honest answers from board members?

A Gentleman’s Game?

A few days after disobediently refusing the Board’s demand that he fire David, Chuck Ayers was presented with two different pre-drafted letters. One was his letter of resignation. The other was a letter firing him. The board offered him the choice of resigning with six months’ severance pay or being fired with four weeks’ pay. He was given 10 minutes to decide. “Based on my feelings of not doing anything wrong and the integrity of the organization,” Ayers says, “I told them I would not resign.”

The Board must have been shocked. They clearly over-played their hand. Seeking to neuter a groundswell of membership outcry for Ayers’ reinstatement, several days later the Board offered him a 6-month contract to oversee a transition period during which time his replacement would be located somewhere. Ayers says he accepted this contract because he wants to see a smooth transition and protect the interests of the club.

Ayers says he’s out of CBC for good. “I have a gentlemen’s agreement that I will step down regardless of the new constitution of the board,” he says. “Right now my focus is on helping my staff formulate a strategic plan for the future and search for a new director. Beyond that, I have no idea what happens next.”

Regarding the “gentlemen’s agreement”, there’s only one gentleman in this story, so the validity of an agreement under duress should be moot.

Who do you think those tattooed cyclists are?

I find it interesting how The Stranger was used as a boogeyman by CBC board president Chris Weiss. The Stranger is Seattle’s popular ‘alternative’ newspaper with a readership of about 437,000 for its print edition and 865,000 for its online edition. The average household income of Stranger readers is $82,000. Not quite as grunge and alternative as the publication appears. The Stranger has no policy against thick-&-zesty language, and I’m assuming its several hundred thousand regular readers are not easily offended.

Some tattooed cyclists already are CBC members. Many are software developers.

One of the areas in which CBC has been typically weak is in reaching out to the demographic that is The Stranger’s readership. That demographic already thinks bikes are cool and a smart transportation alternative. This is Seattle, and many of the tattooed fixie cyclists you see riding around without helmets are actually software developers. They work in a corporate environment and like to let loose riding bikes and partying. In the not-too-distant future those tattooed fixie cyclists will be middle-aged and have kids of their own. They will be potential Cascade members, but only if Cascade is relevant and respectful of them now. What if CBC could ‘earn’ 10% of The Stranger’s 437,000 readers as members? Even 5% is 21,850 people.

What do cyclists of all persuasions have in common?

One thing cyclists of all ages and persuasions have in common is our desire for the streets to be a safe place for our friends, families, and ourselves. That’s why the strong political advocacy work of CBC is important now and into the future. The current board under Chris Weiss clearly wants a softer approach to advocacy.

David Hiller’s thick-&-zesty use of language was appropriate to The Stranger readership. Hiller has the ability to connect with all kinds of people and is an effective lobbyist for our interests. He cares passionately about the safety of cyclists and is highly regarded by legislators in Olympia. In an interview Chuck Ayers 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.”

Big Tent vs. Little Tent Vision

When it comes to bike camping a little tent can be a good thing. When it comes to building a community-based organization ‘BIG TENT’ is better. I see a CBC under the Weiss regime, as being ‘LITTLE TENT’, either alienating or not reaching out to broader demographics, including people who read publications like The Stranger. I don’t think it’s necessarily malicious or intentional. Perhaps it’s cultural. He and like-minded board members may belong to the demographic from which the pejorative term “Cascade Bikes on Top of Cars Club” is derived. While there’s nothing inherently wrong with that demographic, it may be a problem if you’re in a position of power and are remaking the club in your own image. They may just be short-sighted and lacking the kind of ‘BIG TENT’ vision that’s needed to grow an organization like CBC into the future and make it relevant to cyclists of all persuasions.

The Board has claimed the organization will remain grassroots, but what does that really mean? It’s a valueless claim. Unquantifiable. I suspect the Board is attempting to make CBC in its own image, a squeaky clean soulless corporate organization. So much of Seattle has already gone corporate. Top down management and communication style. Employees must work strictly from the guidebook and not feel too passionately about advocacy. It’s just a job and you are disposable. We’re not paying you to think.

The Board will soon choose a malleable Executive Director as successor to Chuck Ayers.

The Board will hire a malleable Executive Director as successor to Chuck Ayers, who will then fire David Hiller. This is a political coup by Chris Weiss and the Board. It’s all about control, not what’s best for CBC, it’s current members, or the future of bicycle advocacy.

Advocating for the Advocates

Chuck Ayers and David Hiller are highly regarded effective advocates. What kind of vision do Chris Weiss and other board members bring to the table? Membership has heard nothing at all about vision. We’re on a need-to-know basis and management has determined we don’t need to know. Power politics plain and simple.

I heard talk about how the by-laws were written to prevent a hostile takeover. Somehow, that’s exactly what happened. Professionally done at that.

Under Ayers’ 13-year leadership, CBC membership has grown and the organization is financially sound, no small feat during these atrocious economic times. Throughout this fiasco he’s demonstrated that he’s a rare individual by his willingness to protect his staff and the interests of the organization. That’s leadership. He earned the loyalty of staff and club members through consistent respectful actions over 13 years at the helm. That’s not something an executive search committee will be able to replace. However this thing goes, I want to thank Chuck Ayers and David Hiller for making Seattle a safer and better place to live.

Bike Club Rescue Squad

Bike Club Rescue Squad, a grassroots effort formed by CBC members, is collecting signatures to petition for recall of the Board of Directors for dereliction of duty, negligence, and actions not in accordance with the purposes of the club.

Click here to visit the Bike Club Rescue Squad website and sign the recall petition.

For a well-written piece of actual journalism, read this article in Crosscut.

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

leo October 30, 2010 at 5:01 pm

In these troubled times a little escapist fiction is a nice diversion.
Might I suggest Robert Heinlein’s classic tale, The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress?

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Moon_Is_A_Harsh_Mistress

Editor’s Note: At first read I thought the commenter was accusing me of writing fiction. He assured me of the opposite and says this book is an essential read. I’ll add it to my list after “A Confederacy of Dunces” a title I love.

Reply

louise October 30, 2010 at 5:39 pm

Now I’m glad you skipped the COGS party for the Cascade meeting; this is a great piece of writing.

Reply

Dennis Grace November 1, 2010 at 10:17 am

I quit CBC and joined COGS because CBC is a political organization masquerading as a bike club, whose politics and political style I don’t always agree with. COGS is the social riding club that CBC once was. I know I am going to sound like an old gezzer and a broken record (remember those? now we download music in digital mp3 files) when I say that when I began riding a bicycle on our roads during the 1970’s bike boom there were no advocacy groups, bike lanes, bike trails or bike facilities of any kind, just bikes on our roads and except for some roads that were designed specifically for motorized vehicles we got to where we were going OK. Don’t get me wrong I do support climbing lanes and bike trails and ‘complete street’ designs that provide access for cyclists but what concerns me is that with all these bicycle facilities we are training cyclists and motorists to expect to have separate lanes to ride and drive in. In my opinion CBC does not do enough to educate and train it’s membership on how to safely share and participate on our roads with motorists and it has not reached across the aisle to motorists to help them understand how and why cyclists ride to be safe amongst motorized-vehicles. Instead the current CBC bicycle advocacy style or tactic is aggressive and possibly antagonistic therefore if it is the board of directors desire to change the political style of CBC I support them in this change of the guard. Finally I find it ironic that an organization whose goal it is to improve cycling safety that their signature events are the most dangerous event rides that I have ever ridden.

Ride On!
Dennis Grace

Reply

Elias November 2, 2010 at 11:24 am

I don’t really see much to get excited about. When it comes to how the club should be run and in matters of advocacy, Hiller and the board largely agree. People in the peanut gallery have turned this infighting into an opportunity to air their personal grievances and suggest how the club should be run. (Or some complain or lament about how it has changed over the years, though that’s neither here nor there.)

Yes, it would be nice if the CBC could include younger riders, like those who belong to Point 83, but the CBC is unwavering about following the rules, which younger people don’t necessarily like. The CBC’s “signature” events are also fairly expensive, given that the money largely is fundraising for the club itself.

(Personally, I’ve grown to no longer want to pay for the privilege of riding in a group. And as Dennis points out, the group you pay to ride is often made up of unsafe cyclists. Still, lots of people want the presence of a SAG wagon, swag, and crappy food along the way.)

The CBC could make more of an effort to arrange rides and events for public school children or partner with college organizations. They have done a lot of good with the Major Taylor project in reaching minority cyclists in highschool. Focusing on education to children would probably do more good for broadening their base than trying to sound “hip” or “zesty” to The Stranger readers.

Reply

Mike Morris November 6, 2010 at 9:58 am

Riding with large groups isn’t my favorite thing, either. I like riding alone or with a friend, and would rather ride late at night than early in the day. I usually do at least a couple of Cascade event rides each year. But, the main reason I pay for membership is to support advocacy.

Personally, I want strong advocacy.I think teaching vulnerable road users to ride bikes safely is important, but focussing primarily on that is a bit like teaching an abused child to avoid upsetting an angry alcoholic parent without bothering to consider the parent. I don’t want the Cascades to take a similarly enabling stance towards motor vehicle traffic.At some point, it’s time to dump out the bottle and tell the drunk to shape up or get out.

I don’t see that advocacy detracts significantly from the Cascade’s ability to serve people who just want to ride properly in a peloton and avoid controversy. Yes, organizations should choose battles wisely and try to avoid making public statements that likely hurt more than they help. But, I would hope the Cascades could do that without dumping it’s leadership in a highly questionable manner and retreating — especially at a time when the political and social climates seem to be just right for making actual progress.

Reply

Leave a Comment

{ 2 trackbacks }

Previous post:

Next post: