Only three weeks before the Spokane Civic Theatre fired its artistic director, its board gave her a $7,000 bonus and said in her annual evaluation that the theater’s record-setting ticket sales were due to her “hard work and diligence.”
Yvonne A.K. Johnson was fired Friday, soon after the leadership of the Civic’s board shifted.
On June 10, the board’s four-member executive committee presented her with a glowing employee evaluation that said she put the theater on solid financial ground and brought to the Civic’s two stages “the highest quality shows.” It praised her fundraising, management, artistic and other efforts and said she continued to implement the board’s vision.
“I don’t think I have ever seen such a glowing, positive employee review,” said Johnson’s attorney, Bob Dunn, who released the review. “The only thing they said she couldn’t do was walk on water.”
Board members have not said why Johnson was fired and they have not released the final tally supporting her termination.
Attempts made Tuesday afternoon to reach new board President Larry Wooley, who took over July 1, were unsuccessful. Wooley previously has declined to comment on the firing. Attorney Michael Church, who is representing the board, also could not be reached for comment.
Church wrote a letter to Johnson on Tuesday demanding that she “immediately refrain from having any contact with any director, employee, donor or anyone else related” to the theater. Dunn responded that Johnson has a one-year contract and remains the artistic director of the theater and will not abide by the demand.
Several board members confirmed that the board was scheduled to meet Wednesday afternoon.
Michael Muzatko, a board member who served as president for six years until last month, said at the end of a board meeting July 9 the board decided to look for a mediator to examine communication issues with Johnson.
The next day, Wooley emailed board members asking them to vote by email on terminating Johnson. No reasons were cited and he gave members a 48-hour deadline, Muzatko said.
“All of a sudden, we were blindsided by the vote,” Muzatko said.
Muzatko declined to say how he voted but said he has never been told what the vote tally was and wasn’t informed that Johnson would be fired until he saw the Civic’s announcement Friday.
Longtime board member Margot Ogden, who has been associated with the theater since the late 1940s, said she opposed the termination but is unsure her vote counted.
That’s because Ogden apparently was stripped of her voting rights at a board meeting in June without her knowledge.
At that meeting, Muzatko said, Wooley proposed to make Ogden an honorary lifetime member of the board. Muzatko said he supported the change to Ogden’s position because it was presented as an honor for Ogden’s long service. Ogden was vice president of the board for many years, until last month.
Ogden said after she discovered she would lose her right to vote, she emailed Wooley to reject the change, but she hasn’t heard back from him. She said she feels she was manipulated to diminish support for Johnson among voting members of the board.
Ogden said Wednesday she was encouraged to stay away from the board meeting scheduled later that day. Another board member contacted her, she said, and relayed information from an attorney representing the Civic that “I would only be embarrassed and turned away” if she tried to attend the meeting.
Board member Barry Jones was the treasurer of the board and served on the executive committee when it approved its positive review of Johnson’s performance. He declined to comment on her termination.
“At a future date, maybe some things will come out,” he said.
Muzatko said Johnson’s positive review was read at the June board meeting and no member raised objections. Her previous annual reviews also were extremely positive.
“It’s eight years of glowing reviews under three different presidents and multiple committees,” he said.
The board’s performance review set her salary at $90,000 and gave her a $7,000 bonus.
Although the theater enjoyed a financial turnaround, the arts community was divided over her leadership, in large part over her termination of musical director James Ryan in 2010. He was let go after eight weeks when an email signed “Megan Wilson” told the Civic that Ryan and his wife had posted a sex ad in the “Casual Encounters” section on Craigslist, according to a November 2010 Inlander article.
Ryan maintains a blog critical of Johnson’s leadership. In March, an attorney representing Johnson sent Ryan a letter demanding he remove posts defaming Johnson. She sued him after he declined to remove posts. Ryan won a motion to strike the suit June 21, and Johnson subsequently was ordered to pay $10,000 plus Ryan’s attorney fees.
Muzatko said he’s concerned that the controversy over Johnson’s termination could cause significant damage to the community theater.
“It doesn’t do anybody any good,” Muzatko said.