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Former Bloomsday board members slam ‘reckless’ vote that spurred race director’s resignation as uncertainty over event leadership grows

Oct. 15, 2022 Updated Sat., Oct. 15, 2022 at 10:04 p.m.

A Bloomsday runner runs down Broadway Street during the 2022 Bloomsday race on Sunday May 1, 2022, in Spokane.  (James Snook For The Spokesman-Review)
A Bloomsday runner runs down Broadway Street during the 2022 Bloomsday race on Sunday May 1, 2022, in Spokane. (James Snook For The Spokesman-Review)

Former Bloomsday board members hope the iconic 12-kilometer race can weather the controversial resignation of “tailor-made” director Jon Neill and several board members amid complaints that board leadership has become “authoritarian” and “mean-spirited.”

Neill stepped down last week, claiming he “endured ongoing criticism, insult, and demeaning comments” from some members of the Bloomsday board of directors.

“Those members have created a toxic, negative, pessimistic, and distracting workplace that remains both corrosive and demoralizing,” Neill penned in a letter Tuesday to Bloomsday founder and previous longtime race director Don Kardong and the Bloomsday board. He has not commented publicly on his resignation beyond the statement.

Board members Tom Fuchs and Steven Jones resigned last month because they disagreed with the board’s decision to remove Neill from the director role and assign him a different title. And board members Carol Hunter, Gary Markham, Andy Hastings and Scott Ward also have resigned since last year.

Jones said board members Dori Whitford, Mark Starr, Al Odenthal, Sarah Ranson, Andy Lefriec, Michael Kiter and Tracie Meidl remain on the board. Whitford, a retired Mead High School teacher and track coach, is now the board president.

Whitford, Starr, Odenthal, Lefriec and Meidl did not return calls to comment on the Bloomsday moves during the past two days. Ranson said she did not want to discuss private board member issues.

Whitford said in a statement last week that Neill chose to step away from the organization.

“Bloomsday and its affiliated events have become a big job,” Whitford wrote. “Because of this opportunity we will now also be looking at ways to possibly restructure some of our jobs. More details will follow.”

Kardong has not offered his assessment of the controversy over Neill’s departure.

Jones said Neill passed with “flying colors” as the organization provided virtual races in 2020 and 2021, and the first live race in three years in 2022.

“I thought he had done a very good job helping us navigate through those COVID waters where we didn’t have an in-person race for a couple years,” Jones said.

Gary Markham, who resigned from the board last year after about 18 years, said Neill did a great job as director.

“I would challenge any of those five board members that voted no confidence in Jon of what was it that he did that was not fulfilling the responsibilities or duties of the race director,” Markham said. “I don’t think they can come up with anything.”

Markham said the vote to strip Neill of his title was 5-4. He called the board’s decision “reckless.”

While Jones thought Neill did a good job, others on the board quibbled about things Neill did or did not do, Jones said. He said board members did not express anything that justified removing him from his position.

Jones said the “shortcomings” some board members claimed Neill had were “more administrative than anything,” but none impacted the abilities of the board members to carry out their duties.

Markham said Whitford told him it bothered her that Jones, Hunter and Neill were previously law partners and that they always ran Bloomsday like it was theirs. Jones, Hunter and Neill served as board president for a combined 10 years during the period of 2000 to 2016, according to the Bloomsday website.

“I think Dori and Sarah (Ranson) have been pushing to get rid of Jon for three years, and they finally got it,” Markham said.

Hunter said the organization financially prospered under Neill’s leadership.

She said the things the board members pointed out about Neill were “trivial” at best, like not providing the board’s agenda on time.

“They honestly treated him like he was a juvenile,” Hunter said.

Neill started volunteering for Bloomsday in the 1990s when he attended Gonzaga University. He served on the board for several years, including as board president in 2007-08.

Jones said Neill “bled Bloomsday.”

“There’s probably no one in Spokane that loves and treasures Bloomsday more than Jon,” Jones said.

Jones said the board became divided a couple years ago. One group supported Neill and another felt Neill was not doing a good job, and brought up more “petty issues than substantive issues” about him, Jones said.

Hunter served on the board for 25 years before and decided not to pursue another term when her final one ended about a year ago.

She said the board was a family that trusted one another, but that quickly changed around the time Neill became race director three years ago. Markham also said the board’s atmosphere changed when Neill became the director.

“There was just a huge shift in the dynamic of our family,” Hunter said.

She said four board members, or a minority of the board, did not like Neill’s enthusiastic style or his ideas and were resistant to change.

She said Neill’s ideas were met with “rolled eyes” from some of the board members, and they were condescending toward him.

“What happened was this particular minority of board members, in my opinion, made a very concerted effort to set him up for failure,” Hunter said.

Markham said some members, like Whitford, Ranstone and Odenthal, a former Spokane assistant police chief, started nitpicking Neill, claiming Neill lacked good communication skills with board members, for example.

“Dori and Al were constantly criticizing every little thing that he did,” Markham said.

He said the board had a meeting about one year into Neill’s tenure as director about some board members micromanaging Neill.

“We haven’t had a live race,” Markham said. “We’ve been profitable with our two virtual races, so either fire him now or let him sink or swim on his own instead of trying to micromanage.”

Hunter said Neill was more “hands on” than previous race directors. For example, she said Neill wanted to be race director for Junior Bloomsday, and some board members said he could not do that and he should focus on his job.

“But the truth is, never once was it proven that he couldn’t do both,” Hunter said. “In fact, he did both beautifully. He was a tireless worker.”

She said Neill worked seven days a week, getting to the office at 6 a.m., many times during the year.

“To see someone who quite literally throws himself into a cause like this and is very, very smart and is so beloved in the community, to then be set up to fail by really mean-spirited people, it was very, very hard to watch unfold,” Hunter said.

She said it was an easy decision to resign last fall. She thought about it for quite some time because she said she was starting to become the target of some of the mean-spiritedness. She also believed it was time for “new blood” on the board.

Hunter said once when she came to Neill’s defense during a board meeting, a fellow board member stood up, put his finger in her face and raised his voice, insisting she was being difficult and should leave. She said she sat down and looked around the table at the shocked looks of other board members. But no one said anything.

She said the incident was so intense and confrontational that it caused her to shake – even after the meeting when she was home. She declined to say which board member confronted her.

“I could not believe that it had come to this,” Hunter said. “Unfortunately, that happened one more time.”

Markham said he resigned about six weeks after Whitford became president. He said at a board meeting prior to Whitford filling the president role that Whitford was “the most divisive of all our board members,” and did not believe she would make a good leader.

“I will not support someone with the leadership style of Dori Whitford,” Markham said, calling her “authoritarian.”

“That is specifically what it came down to,” he said.

Jones called the Bloomsday leadership shakeup “extremely sad.”

“I hope that this does not have a negative impact on Bloomsday in the future, because Bloomsday is such a special event,” Jones said. “It’s so important to Spokane, and I think we all want to see it thrive and survive. So my great fear is that this will have some long-term, maybe negative impact on it, and I really am sorry about that.”

Hunter said she is very worried about the future of the race, but offered that it’s much more than the board or a single person. She has faith in the Spokane community.

Still, she said it will be very difficult to find someone to replace Neill because of the long hours he put in and his years of experience.

“I don’t know anyone else that could do it,” Hunter said.

Markham said he does not think the controversy will “doom Bloomsday,” but added board members will have a lot of heavy lifting for the upcoming race with the loss of himself and other board members who recently resigned. He said some current board members still support Neill, and community members want Bloomsday to succeed.

Doug Kelley, former board chair and the race’s first director, said the recent resignations are a “bump in the road.”

He said he hopes the situation doesn’t shine a negative light on the event or dissuade sponsors.

“It needs to rise above this interpersonal conflict,” Kelley said.

He said he hopes long-term board members step away from the board.

“The folks have simply been on too long,” he said. “They need to step aside and let it evolve. It’s not about them. It’s about the event.”

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