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‘I was terminated without cause’: Harding

Will firing delay Centre's search for new site?

CONFLICT OF INTEREST? Board co-chair Craig Maynard says Jennifer Breakspear (above) was not on the committee that selected her to step in as interim executive director of The Centre. Credit: Natasha Barsotti

As the initial shock over the removal of Michael Harding as executive director of The Centre subsides, some members of Vancouver’s queer community are worried about how his termination might affect progress on finding a new home for the Bute St facility.

“This is the worst possible timing, as Michael was moving this process forward,” says community activist Jamie Lee Hamilton of Harding’s Jan 18 firing. “They will have to start anew.”

The Centre has been actively seeking a new home since 2005, when it became eligible for a city council grant to study the feasibility of building a new queer community centre in Vancouver. After months of community consultation, The Centre presented a wish list last June of programs and services a new facility could provide, though it left specifics on costs and location to the next round of consultation.

When Harding became executive director Jul 9, he immediately began exploring options for a new building and told Xtra West he was receiving positive feedback from the city.

Harding brought years of professional fundraising experience to his new position, having raised money for AIDS Vancouver and McLaren House, and run a number of other capital campaigns – skills The Centre’s board co-chair Craig Maynard highlighted in his decision to hire Harding eight months ago.

Hamilton, who runs a program for Aboriginal Two-Spirit trans youth at The Centre, now worries Harding’s removal may jeopardize any potential funding for the new facility.

“Any time that an organization gets bogged down in a sticky situation, such as the questionable departure of its chief executive officer, funders become skittish. Any movement toward a new centre requires not only the city’s involvement, but their commitment to funding it,” she says.

Little Sister’s bookstore co-owner Jim Deva expresses similar concerns.

“I certainly hope that process is not going to be delayed or destroyed as a result of Michael’s departure,” says Deva, a former member of the steering committee for a new Centre site. “I hope that momentum continues, which is really essential.”

But Spencer Herbert, a queer member of the Vancouver Parks Board and former Centre volunteer, finds it difficult to see how the process of finding a new site could be held up.

“I think the process could be made slower by Michael’s departure if we all sit on our hands, but the goal of the project is so great that I can’t see us slowing down.”

Asked if work on finding a new home has been affected by Harding’s firing, The Centre’s interim executive director, former Centre board member Jennifer Breakspear, reassured Xtra West that things are moving along just fine.

“We are continuing to move forward with finding new space. There have been no delays at all in this regard as a result of Michael’s departure.”

Hamilton also raised the issue of a potential conflict of interest with the appointment of Breakspear as interim executive director, given her recent position on The Centre’s board of directors.

“This may be perceived by the community as a conflict of interest and this matter must be cleared up immediately. If it isn’t, this will prevent The Centre from moving forward into the future,” Hamilton predicts.

Maynard disputes any suggestion of a conflict of interest.

He says a committee of two board members, neither of whom was Breakspear, was established to work on an interim replacement for Harding and that when the committee reported its findings to the board a few days after Harding’s termination, Breakspear was asked to leave the room.

“She was not part of that conversation and she was not part of that decision,” says Maynard, adding that Breakspear tendered her resignation before taking up the position of interim director.

The board considered Breakspear an appropriate choice for the interim position, Maynard continues.

“She’s demonstrated excellent leadership skills as a board member and this made her a suitable candidate for us,” he says.

As for Harding’s permanent replacement, Maynard says the board is working on the job posting for the executive director vacancy and he expects the posting to be made public in a couple of weeks.

Asked what The Centre is looking for in its new leader, Maynard cited experience in a leadership role with an LGBT organization like The Centre and experience dealing with government and fundraising.

When asked by Xtra West to comment on his removal, Harding says he has had to retain legal counsel and must remain tight-lipped.

“My legal counsel has advised me not to make any public comment on the situation,” he says.

However, Harding does say his firing comes as a shock.

“The situation I’m in is that I was terminated without cause. It was a complete surprise to me,” he says.

Meanwhile, some in the queer community would just like to see The Centre pick up the pieces and move on.

“I think everyone’s attention should be focused at this juncture on continuing to provide services and programs for our community, always trying to improve and better that programming and, ultimately, working towards providing The Centre with a new home,” says past Centre board member Barb Snelgrove.

Herbert agrees.

“It’s not great when this sort of thing happens. However, what’s important is that we don’t get caught up in controversy and forget the crucial programs The Centre provides,” he says