‘After 36 years, it was quite a shock’: Nevada City Chamber of Commerce directors receive backlash over Whittlesey ouster
The Nevada City Chamber of Commerce Board of Directors’ decision to remove its executive director position, held by Cathy Whittlesey for 36 years, has drawn backlash since being announced last month.
In a letter dated July 26, Whittlesey addressed the Board of Directors in response to receiving notice that she would no longer be working for the chamber.
“After carefully considering this (severance and release) agreement, I cannot in good conscience sign the agreement as it is not based in fact,” Whittlesey wrote.
She goes on to state she had been told her discharge came as a result of financial constraints, a claim she disputes, noting that the chamber held over $130,000 in its reserves and “it would take a long time to make a dent in that number” given that she had been billing for five hours per week since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.
In her letter, Whittlesey states she believes her termination from the chamber was motivated by age discrimination and the intent to have someone else take over the executive director position.
“After several secret meetings, and other meetings where I was excluded, those with this agenda in mind convinced some board members I was not fit for the job,” she wrote.
Whittlesey’s last day in the executive director position was July 31.
“After 36 years, it was quite a shock,” Whittlesey said.
SECRETS AND RESIGNATIONS
According to Whittlesey, the chamber reserves mentioned in her letter constitute sufficient funds to last at least until 2021. She said she was asked in June to prepare a financial plan for how the chamber could remain afloat through the pandemic; she provided a plan to the Board of Directors in which she projected that the expenses at the time would remain viable through the end of 2020; and recommended the chamber’s finances be reevaluated Jan. 1.
“They never brought me in to talk about it. They just said it wouldn’t work,” said Whittlesey.
Whittlesey said the chamber’s income from city occupancy taxes and membership fees had still been coming in during the last several months, and expenses at the time of her termination primarily consisted of office utilities, bookkeeping, and maintenance. She said the chamber’s biggest expenses normally come from holding events, which have been put on pause during the pandemic, allowing the chamber to also eliminate the expense of some event-related insurance coverage.
The Chamber of Commerce office’s rent, as well as water and waste management utilities, are provided by Nevada City. Whittlesey did not have an estimate of how long the reserves would last under current conditions, but said they were a normal amount for the chamber to hold.
About her exclusion from executive board meetings, which had normally included Whittlesey as executive director, she said, “I didn’t even know they were happening. They were a secret.”
Whittlesey said she learned of the meetings from Peggy Peterson, who was present at the meetings as previous president of the board. Peterson resigned from the Board of Directors in June, alongside Kim Coughlan and Steve Hillis, following a board vote in favor of reevaluating Whittlesey’s continued employment.
“I resigned because … I didn’t do enough to try to protect Cathy. I didn’t feel like I wanted to be part of ruining someone’s livelihood who has devoted so much time and effort to our city,” said Peterson.
Peterson said that, beginning in April, the other executive members of the board — herself, current president Gretchen Bond, president-elect Celine Negrete, and treasurer Robin Danos — began meeting without Whittlesey. At first, according to Peterson, she thought Whittlesey’s exclusion had been a one-time mistake. It continued in May, and Peterson said she refused to attend in June as a result.
“I felt good that I took a stand that I didn’t want to be a part of the situation,” Peterson said, “because it was obvious what the end result was planned to be.”
When asked about the financial constraints brought into question and accusations of age discrimination, Bond said the chamber does not comment on private personnel matters.
RESPONSE TO THE BOARD’S DECISION
In a letter sent to around 50 members of the chamber as of Thursday, chamber member Barry Costello stated that the “elimination of Cathy’s job had nothing to do with money.” Costello also stated some members of the current Board of Directors had met privately to decide to remove the position, citing Whittlesey’s July 26 letter to the Board of Directors.
In his letter, Costello calls other members to demand a new election of the Board of Directors be held within the next 30 days. Currently, the next Board of Directors election is set to take place in October.
Costello said he believes his efforts will gain support as more people find out about the situation, and he plans to mail the letter to 250 active members of the chamber within the next week, attaching to it the names of people who support its contents. He said Friday that has 33 names.
Whittlesey said she is not involved in Costello’s efforts to have a new board elected.
“I never imagined all this would come out of it,” said Whittlesey.
During her 36 years with Nevada City’s Chamber of Commerce, Whittlesey played a lead role in organizing some of the city’s major annual events, including Summer Nights and Victorian Christmas.
In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, many of this year’s opportunities to draw crowds were lost and the Visitor Center closed to visitors. However, Whittlesey adapted her work to continue serving Nevada City under the current limitations.
“Without any events, we don’t have as much work, but I was trying to keep the name alive — keeping the chamber out there,” said Whittlesey, elaborating that she had continued to give radio reports and represent the chamber in community discussions.
Vice Mayor Duane Strawser described Whittlesey’s work as hugely important to the promotion of tourism to Nevada City.
“We always found a way to make it happen, because Cathy was always the positive input person. She was never hesitant or negative about an opportunity,” said Strawser.
Strawser credited her as having made critical contributions to Nevada City’s participation as a starting point of the Amgen Tour of California bike race, which he said gave the city more national exposure than any other event.
The Hallmark Channel’s “The Christmas Card,” a movie featuring Nevada City as the backdrop for a holiday love story, has similarly brought a lot of attention to the city over the years. According to Strawser, Whittlesey was instrumental in facilitating the movie’s arrival to Nevada City as well as promoting it since.
“That’s one of those things that happened once, but it’s played in reruns every year, and it’s probably one of the things that the chamber got the most calls from,” said Strawser, adding that people from a wide variety of places contact the chamber to ask about visiting notable Nevada City spots they saw in the movie.
About her absence at the chamber, Strawser said, “It’s going to be a big, big loss.”
Victoria Penate is a staff writer for The Union. She can be reached at email@example.com.
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