Minnie, they’re at it again! The organization founded in 1938 by Charles Minot “Minnie” Dole, the National Ski Patrol (NSP), has been sued again by 6 patrollers, 5 of whom serve on the 28,000-member organization’s National Board of directors.
NSP watchers and members couldn’t forget, as much as they might like to, the last time this happened just 7 years ago. A group of Division Directors and patrollers was forced to sue the NSP in 2005 to have a say in how the organization was run, by electing their representatives on the NSP National Board. That group ultimately represented just under 8,000 NSP members before the organization relented and settled the litigation. That resolution led to a complete turnover of the NSP’s Board and National leadership team over 18 months. The settlement agreement resulted in a re-write of the NSP’s bylaws as it relates to member voting. Well, apparently old habits die hard.
The current suit was filed on 1 August 2012 in Colorado’s Jefferson County District Court, near the organization’s Lakewood headquarters. Board Members Gary Deaver, Wally Shank, Frank Davis, Larry Stone and Ed Gassman are joined by John Sievert in the suit that seeks the member contact information to communicate with members about the current issues. Under Colorado Law any voting member can request a member list of a non-profit to communicate with other members about organization business. The suit claims that the NSP refused numerous requests for the list, forcing the filing. Ironically, senior leadership ignoring member rights is what caused the 2005 nightmare that cost the members more than $600,000 in legal fees on all sides, not to mention the organizational distraction and reputation hit.
According to Wally Shank, Board Member and a Plaintiff in the current action, “Unfortunately, the NSP has been ignoring Colorado law and ignoring legitimate and proper requests made by members. We avoided filing this action for a long time but when it became apparent that the NSP would not comply I agreed to pursue legal steps to compel compliance. I am now actively engaged to resolve the suit and get this sad chapter behind us. We all need to work and communicate better to ensure that future NSP leaders understand their legal obligations so no member will be forced to resort to legal action again. It hurt me deeply that this action was needed because the NSP has been a significant part of my life and it is my sincere belief that legal recourse should be the absolute last step in compelling anyone or any organization to obey the law.”
Member rights and governance are the central themes of the current debate. There are three key issues, according to John Sievert, one of 5 NSP patrollers on the Member Vote Team, who authored the proposals at the center of the debate. Sievert is the non-board member plaintiff. He joined the NSP as a patroller when he was a teenager and has been a member since 1975. Some representatives of the Member Vote Team were also members of the 2005 patroller group that made those changes, and a few were plaintiffs in both suits. Several are also contributors and members of the Ski-Patrol.net community.
The current troubles appear to have been building since 2006, including since January 2011 when the Board took significant steps to eliminate transparency and other issues, including making skiing optional for NSP Patrollers. A request to have members decide the issues was presented for member vote in May 2012, containing 5 proposals. Those recommendations address corporate governance policies around member voting; appointments and term limits for NSP officials; and requiring patrollers to be (or to have been) competent skiers at some point in their NSP service.
According to Sievert, “I know these sound like strange topics for NSP leaders to be debating, but here we are. In my view, it will be a no-brainer for patrollers to decide. The NSP must have fair and tamper-proof elections of leaders by the members. Patrollers are leaders by nature, and our leadership needs to be refreshed continually so that innovation in NSP programs never stops. And we need to protect our mission of ski patrollers rescuing injured skiers by keeping the “ski” in the ‘National Ski Patrol.’ But whether I believe the answer to each petition question is yes or no is not the main point. The members of the NSP have the legal right to decide these key issues. Our proposals are essential to protect NSP member rights and the Ski Patrol’s ability to serve the skiing public for another 75 years.”
This presents a delicate situation for NSP management. The National Ski Patrol is one of a very small number of organizations like the Red Cross and Girl Scouts to be granted a US Federal Charter for its non-profit work as the nation’s largest Ski Patrol organization. Its mission could not be more clear, to promote public safety in skiing. But this group believes the NSP’s forays into non-skiing areas, and de-emphasis on skiing competence to focus most of the NSP’s resources on its Outdoor Emergency Care first responder programs, is causing some to say that the organization has lost its strategic direction.
It seems clear the current debate is all about improving member rights and governance procedures to ensure that this never happens again. With NSP’s 75th anniversary events scheduled to run at Stowe in the fall and Colorado in 2013, hopefully it will not be an even more public battle this time around.
Updated 17 August 2012