The embattled Festival at Sandpoint suffered another blow Monday with the abrupt resignations of Executive Director Connie Berghan and three key staff members.
Berghan, marketing director Cheryl Brock, fund-raiser Jennifer Leedy and office manager Eileen Keller packed up their desks over the weekend and quit.
“We have agonized over this for a couple of weeks, and each made our own decision not to work with the festival any longer,” Brock said Monday. “We chose not to go in the direction the board is going with recent decisions regarding location.”
Personal attacks from some members of the community, including calls for Berghan’s and Leedy’s ouster, also were factors, Brock said.
“We wish the festival well in its future endeavors, but we have officially submitted resignations and will no longer be working with the festival,” she said.
The four were the only full-time paid festival staff members. Their resignations forced the festival office to close Monday.
The mass exodus caught board members off guard but drew cheers from others who had criticized the management team.
“I commend them (the staffers) on their spirit and ability to look toward a changed festival,” said Al Czap, a former board member who wanted Berghan fired. “We haven’t lost anything. We have created a new, streamlined, more businesslike direction for the festival to go.”
But board member Bill Love was disheartened by the news and said it’s possible board members could follow suit and leave.
“For all the staff to quit is quite a shock,” he said. “I didn’t expect any of this.”
Festival organizers will meet today to regroup and staff the office on an interim basis. A search for an executive director will be launched later, said festival Vice President Dave Slaughter.
Festival critics may consider the resignations a victory, but Slaughter said losing the entire staff is an excessive price to appease a few naysayers.
“It’s a shame,” he said. “Through no fault of their own, the staff has been slandered and libeled with totally unsubstantiated allegations. Contrary to some opinions, they are a very competent group. I hate to lose them.”
This is the time when festival organizers are booking performers for next summer’s concerts. A contract for use of Memorial Field, the festival’s main stage site, also needs to be drafted.
“The board has a lot to discuss,” Slaughter said.
Berghan was named executive director in 1991. She replaced Tim Hunt, who was fired during another festival controversy.
Berghan helped the organization climb out of a $138,000 budget deficit. But some of that red ink may show up back on the books this year after a lackluster season that saw low attendance and two performers cancel shows.
This year, festival staff and board members came under attack for plans to move half of the three-week concert series to Kootenai County.
It was seen as a way to generate larger audiences and more money and solve scheduling conflicts at Memorial Field, which the festival won’t be able to use after 1997 anyway.
Fewer concerts in Sandpoint also would have appeased Memorial Field neighbors who have complained about noise and traffic from the shows.
But the community erupted in anger at the prospect of losing any concerts and tourism dollars. Some wanted Berghan fired, saying the festival has become too large and has strayed from its classical roots and that the festival office is overstaffed and workers overpaid.
The combined salaries of Berghan, Leedy and Keller are under $100,000, and Brock is paid with grant money, Slaughter countered. Reports that Berghan earned $70,000 alone are false, he said.
Community pressure eventually led the board to reverse its decision to move. It decided to keep the entire festival in Bonner County and cut one festival staff position.
The resignations came days later.
“Now is the time for the community to pull together and make this thing work so we don’t lose it altogether,” said chamber of commerce director Jonathan Coe.
Sandpoint Mayor Ron Chaney, who also is Berghan’s father, issued a challenge to festival critics. They should put their time where their mouths are and ask to be named to the festival board, he said.
“(This) presents an opportunity for those who have been derogatory of the festival to become personally involved in the decision-making process. The future of the festival is in their hands.”