The Natural: A true story

March 22, 2008

—Op-Ed by Calvin Luther Martin

RE:  Immediate Termination

Dear Mr. Moll: 

Effective Friday, February 8, 2008, you are terminated for cause from ComLinks, Inc., for incompetence and improper performance of duties….

Sincerely, 

Nancy Reich, CEO

“The Natural”
The Natural

“Ball one!” The voice of the umpire ricochets through the ballpark as he thrusts his arm into the air, index finger extended. The pitcher’s nervous. The ump, hunched behind him, nearly touches him. “I could almost feel his breath,” recalls the boy years later in one of those indelible childhood memories.

The boy’s a natural. With a fast ball that’s the talk of the league, and sidearm worthy (he believes) of an agent’s contract—the kid’s confident. Too confident.

“Ball twooo,” barks the Voice, drawing out the “o’s.”

“I walked an unusual number of batters that night,” he remembers years later, eyes twinkling.

The umpire happened to be—yikes!—his dad. Crouched behind the mound, calling the game of life for his 12-year-old son. For the whole world to see and hear. On the drive home the father patiently explains the subtleties of baseball, the lessons that become the boy’s compass for the rest of life. Always play fair. Remember to always give the other kid a chance ‘cause we’re all in this game together. Be compassionate. Above all, beware of over-confidence and arrogance.

“I thought I was a helluva pitcher till my dad was asked to umpire the game that evening.”  A moment later he graciously adds:  “My dad was more than fair.”

Both mom and dad worked full time. And hard. They taught their kids that honest hard work never hurt anyone—and, as the boy never forgot, be “more than fair.”

When I ask what his mom was like, he smiles. “All mom’s are good!” I like that answer. Mom organized the family. She made sure the family ate meals together, and the kids were properly clothed. Daughter of German immigrants, she ran the family like the cabinet-maker’s daughter that she was.

I ask about his dad, the no-nonsense umpire. A tool & die machinist—exacting and precise as a Mercedes. (He, too, is German.)

Sworn in as a police officer a dozen years later the young man takes to the job like the proverbial duck to water. “It was my dream,” he says quietly. The kid with the big feet who could sling a mean fast ball becomes the sharpshooter who can deliver the perfect bullet. Except this cop’s a peacemaker. No desk cop, mind you; he’s out there with his officers cleaning up the gore after the head-on collision, he’s there directing traffic, he’s there writing tickets with the rest of them. Men in blue respect him. A cop’s cop.

I shudder when he tells me night patrol was his favorite. The Twilight Zone, “when you can be a true police officer; when you can really use your skills.”

I can imagine.

Don Moll, SWAT

He becomes chief forensic investigator, a fingerprint sleuth, a pioneer in videotaping grisly evidence and successfully defending it in court.  He joins the SWAT team and scuba team.  Occasionally he disappears undercover, and reappears to found the Monroe County Technical Services Committee, coordinating all the local police departments. He even delivers a baby.

Not surprisingly, the district attorney is a happy man when he knows Sergeant Donald Moll, Jr., will be presenting the day’s evidence in court.

The awards, citations and plaques pour in. Silent testimony to a man who is exacting and precise.  Who, like the umpire, believes in being “more than fair.” Who’s truly good at what he does—which is working with people.

 Don Moll with medal

“If you show a person you’re treating him with respect, for the most part that respect will be returned.”

Always play fair. Remember, always give the other person a chance ‘cause we’re all in this game together. Be compassionate. Beware of hubris.

But twenty years in the forensic pressure cooker is enough. He retires to the North Country where his folks vacationed when he was a kid. He and his wife (he married his high school sweetheart, whom he still adores) build a log home in Owls Head (“our hands have touched every board, every log, in that place”), and within a few years he’s offered a job he loves. Director of Property Management at ComLinks.

Once more he takes charge, this time of a faltering program (his predecessor had quit after a few months). When he arrives he discovers he is presiding over a department of one: a laborer with no driver’s license. He’s now the second employee. It’s a challenge. Don works side by side with the man, renovating and cleaning apartments for tenants in the “supportive housing” program. (“Supportive housing”: for people trying to get on their feet. ComLinks doesn’t own the units; it manages them for various tax credit partnerships.)

“One of my goals was to make the tenants’ first step—moving into a pleasant home—into a successful journey. My goal was to make sure the units were very positive in their appearance and function. Coming from one bad situation, I didn’t want these folks to come into another bad situation.” He saw to it the units were repainted, carpets cleaned, appliances clean and functioning. “I wanted to see a smile on their face. I wanted them to think, ‘This is a new beginning for me.'”

New beginning indeed. Under his direction his department took on new and difficult responsibilities: rent collection, eviction issues, court appearances for evictions, neighbor v. neighbor complaints. Don was on call 24/7; it was his phone that rang at 3 am with an irate or frantic tenant on the other end.

Night shift.  Just like the old days when he was a police officer.

His goal was to make things work out for these traumatized people. There being only way to do this: through one-on-one, personal attention to each tenant. Eventually there would be 104 apartments in 36 supportive housing units throughout Franklin and Essex counties. Plus two domestic violence units (one in Malone, another in Saranac Lake). Daily maintenance and repair for all these.

That’s lots of people in lots of apartments. “My goal was to keep people in their apartments. I would personally go over a budget with the tenant. If they could maintain the current rent, and give me $75 or $100 per month toward back rent, I would not evict them. I would set up monthly payment agreements based on their budgets, tailor-made for that family. Based completely on what they could afford above and beyond their monthly bills (food, etc.).  If they could afford only $50, that’s what I would take. I’ve always had this personal relationship with all the tenants.”

If the tenant couldn’t manage expenses, Don worked closely with Catholic Charities, HUD, DSS, and church organizations to get them help.

Remember, always give the other person a chance ‘cause we’re all in this game together. Be compassionate.

“Basically, I was being a cop. I was constantly resolving conflict.” “You have to make both parties feel you respect them. Both must feel that they have won. This does not come through a book.”

It worked. Spectacularly, it seems. There was only a handful of evictions during his tenure, and rent collection was surprisingly successful:  97% rent collection success in 2006, 95% in 2007 (dragged down by the Peaceful Valley housing project, which he calculates lost $72,000 in rent).  Vacancy rates for both 2006 and 2007 were 8% (again, except when factoring in Peaceful Valley, which dropped 2007’s vacancy rate to 13%).  (Leaving one wondering what the CEO and board were thinking when they plunged into Peaceful Valley.  Looks like they did a swan dive into a barrel.)

Every few years state agencies would show up to examine tenant records and do visual inspections. So would the syndicators, representing the owners. Don’s department always got rave reviews. In fact, his successes helped ComLinks obtain the funds to build additional complexes.

And so it went—till this past fall, when years of staff discontent with CEO Nancy Reich reaches the flash point. Don, a listener by temperament, finds himself listening to a torrent of complaints about Nancy’s management style.  Sometime in the final week of November the majority of ComLinks staff votes “no confidence” in Nancy Reich. Convinced the board of directors is unable or unwilling to rein in Nancy, and is merely her cipher, they extend their “no confidence” to the board as well.

We the undersigned employees of ComLinks are taking the extraordinary step of writing this letter to express our complete lack of confidence in the CEO and Board of this agency. We love our work, and are fully committed to the mission of ComLinks. However, the impact of malicious and incompetent management on the work and reputation of the agency has left us with no choice but to act.

So reads the opening paragraph. Signed by 40 (out of 50) staff members, the letter goes on to catalog Nancy’s shortcomings:  “her behavior has created a hostile work environment that we can no longer tolerate. She behaves as though all of the assets and resources of the agency, including its staff, are her personal possessions to be used as she finds convenient. She belittles employees in front of their peers. It is not unusual for her to be personally offensive to staff.”

And so on.  The charges sound like a cri de coeur (“cry of the heart”) from a close-knit group of people at their wit’s end.  A mixture of desperation, wrath, and sorrow.  The letter goes on to say “we believe that funds are being misappropriated, and the Board has either been deceived or is complicit. It is well known that the Agency has a dangerously large deficit….”

“We are aware,” it continues, “that complaints have been filed over the years utilizing the Agency’s internal grievance procedure,” a process the signatories maintain is a burceaucratic charade. In a bold stroke, the staff bypass both the CEO and board of directors and appeal to the local community and State of New York to arbitrate the dispute. “ComLinks is not a private business. We do the public’s business, with public money. That business must be done with integrity and transparency.”

It’s mutiny aboard ComLinks.  The commander responds by appointing an ombudsman (grievance) committee—consisting of board members.  (A little like the fox appointing a committee of foxes to address the concerns coming from the henhouse.)   The confidential grievance committee is viewed as bogus, and ignored.

Next step, Plan B:  The board responds with a two-page memorandum, starting with, “we wish to reassure employees that no one will see retaliation due to this expression of concerns.  We value and are proud of our employees.”

Next step, Plan C:  Heads roll.  (So much for reassurances from the board.)  Three of five program directors are sacked: Don Moll, Ruth Valachovic and, for all intents and purposes, Dave Trudeau (“I saw the writing on the wall and … resigned”).  All three, by any objective measure, are highly competent and dedicated administrators.  Except for committing the unpardonable sin of asking the CEO and board to walk the plank.

Next step, Plan D:  This community has no choice but to get involved and look carefully at the people being fired or pressured to resign, to look carefully at their friends and neighbors and loved ones who are among the 40+ signatories to that letter of “no confidence,” and look carefully at Nancy Reich and her board.  This will not go away; it will not be swept under the proverbial carpet.

There is a full-bown mutiny underway.  It will not be fixed by a committee of the very people being named as culprits.  At the same time, the board and Nancy deserve all fairness and courtesy.  Even so, they cannot be permitted to control the discourse; the community must control it.

It’s time for the community to step up and umpire this ball game.

 Don Moll

A warm summer evening.  The smell of french fries and hot dogs wafts across the ballpark.  Pitching this evening, a kid with big feet and a ferocious fastball.  The Natural.  Except, he’s a grown man now.  And the stakes have never been higher.

He’s confident.

Always play fair. Remember to always give the other kid a chance ‘cause we’re all in this game together. Be compassionate. Above all, beware of over-confidence and arrogance.

Editor’s note:  I am mindful that members of the ComLinks staff may wish to keep their identity confidential as they respond to this editorial, despite assurances from ComLinks that retaliation may be furthest from its mind.  Normally, RiverCityMalone does not permit anonymous letters, but it seems prudent to make a special provision here.  If you feel that revealing your identity would put you in jeopardy, you are indeed welcome to sign your letter with a “pen” name.  However, it is essential that I, as editor of RCM, know your real identity, to guard against bogus letters.  Toward that end you are welcome to send me an advance email (info@rivercitymalone.com) letting me know you will be posting a comment/letter and of your intention to use a specified pen name.  I will keep your identity confidential. 

Let me emphasize that all letters must be courteous, must be true and accurate in their claims, and must not be slanderous.  It is fine to express strong feelings and statements; it is not fine to express these slanderously or discourteously.  You are welcome to post photos (JPEG file) or documents (PDF file) with your letter, but these, too, must be true and accurate, courteous, not slanderous, and must be legal for you to post.  Let me be clear that you are responsible for anything you post, as explained under Terms of Service

RiverCityMalone is not a forum for brawling; it is not Monday night wrestling.  Just like a family dispute, this requires strong but fair statements, even tears and raising one’s voice a bit; nevertheless it requires listening carefully to the other individual, it requires flexibility and it calls for compassion.  Nobody is evil in this scenario.  Like Shakespeare’s Hamlet or King Lear, one may be a tragic and damaged figure—but imputing evil is not a productive line of reasoning in a dispute like this.