Out of Their League

How a president-elect's removal divided Richmond's Junior League.

Despite protestations to the contrary, it appears that rumors and exaggerations are at the heart of the discord troubling the league, and they cover such taboo areas as sex, drugs and family money. The whole thing’s left husbands reportedly quipping that if this is the Junior League, then it’s much more exciting than they imagined.

It centers on the decision of the league’s board of directors to remove Leisha LaRiviere as president-elect for the 2005-2006 year and, likewise, president for the 2006-2007 year.

While conflicts among members naturally arise from time to time, some league members say LaRiviere’s removal is the first time in the league’s 80-year history that the board has ousted its president-elect.

It’s a high-profile, high-pressure position. With 1,400 members, about 500 of them active, the league has long been the city’s most prominent women’s organization, providing 30,000 hours yearly to projects aimed at bettering the lives of children and families in need. In an effort to strengthen its future, one member says the league has worked hard in the past few years to dispel the “white-glove and high-tea atmosphere” that many people associate with the league.

Now members are dismayed that the controversy has the potential to overshadow the good their organization does. Style spoke with several league members close to the situation, including board members, who represented opposing sides. Most of them spoke on the condition that their names not be used.

By all accounts, relations between LaRiviere and the league’s current president, Sarah Frank, had intermittently been strained for months.

Members say that in September, LaRiviere approached Jane Helfrich, the league’s executive director, to relay unsubstantiated rumors that had surfaced about another member’s alleged drug use and involvement in sex parties.

The accusations were ludicrous, members say, and some felt that LaRiviere’s conversation with Helfrich was beyond inappropriate. Emotions spiraled out of control from there. Regular and special meetings of the league and its board, held in January and February, became unequivocally heated.

On Feb.12, the league’s board of directors voted 14-2 to remove LaRiviere from her position. Accompanied to the board meeting by her attorney, LaRiviere resigned after the board voted her out.

Some league members thought LaRiviere had stepped down on her own until LaRiviere’s supporters — many of whom were on the nominating committee that selected her — sent out an e-mail in early March. It called for an inquiry into the process used to remove her and claimed that the board had initiated an “ousting vote based on nothing that involved breaking any JLR bylaws.”

On March 6, two days before a story about LaRiviere’s departure was scheduled to run in Style, the board sent a missive to members stating that there had been irreconcilable differences between LaRiviere and the board over “values a leader of the Junior League is expected to uphold.” In the letter, the board defended its actions as fair and appropriate and said it kept details of the incident private so as not to spark a public discussion.

Therein lies the rub: A contingent of members say the board should have allowed members to more fully discuss the situation before the board issued its decision. Some members were furious they weren’t allowed to defend LaRiviere; others were upset that the situation had become so personal.

Now a clash has escalated that appears to divide the league into those who back LaRiviere and those who back the board’s decision.

Adrift in the furor, the Junior League now grapples with what seems to be as much a matter of propriety as of process. After rampant and heated discourse seeped into wider circles, league members now are hushed. Insiders say the concern is that public sparring could take a toll on membership and donor support.

It’s a precarious position for nonprofits, says Outi Flynn, director of information dissemination with BoardSource, a Washington, D.C.-based independent nonprofit consultant. She says faulty communication can make the removal of a board member, especially an officer, even more of a sensitive issue.

“When people do not understand why something happens, the situation easily seems unfair,” she says. “If the issues are sensitive, it makes sense to keep a certain level of confidentiality so that the individual’s rights are not violated.” A mediator could have been a possible solution, Flynn says.

LaRiviere’s supporters say she requested a mediator but was denied.

Citing advice from her attorney, LaRiviere has declined Style’s repeated requests for comment. Reached by phone, her attorney, William F. Etherington, also refused to comment.

League member Salud Layton, whose name appears on numerous e-mails supporting LaRiviere and rebuking the board’s actions, tells Style via e-mail: “Members of the Junior League are making inquiry into processes and procedure relating to the issues at hand.”

Meanwhile, the board’s recent letter to members is almost spicy. It alleges that LaRiviere “has engaged in actions that cannot be condoned by any officer, particularly a President-Elect, of the Junior League of Richmond.”

LaRiviere moved with her family to Richmond eight years ago from Fayetteville, N.C., where she was a member of that city’s Junior League. Here, she quickly attained a community presence in the Junior League and elsewhere. LaRiviere, whom people describe as a tireless worker with an enthusiastic, sunny disposition, was a 2005 graduate of Leadership Metro Richmond and one of Style’s “Top Forty Under 40” honorees last year.

Helfrich, who is not a voting board member, declines to say what her role has been in LaRiviere’s dismissal. She insists the board did not conspire to push LaRiviere out and that what has happened is LaRiviere’s doing. Helfrich says the board followed a “fair and open process” in voting to remove LaRiviere.

But at least 15 members — including a past president — have written letters of support for LaRiviere, maintaining the process is neither fair nor open. They fault the board for creating within the league an atmosphere of hypocrisy and mistrust.

Trust is essential between a board and its membership, says Anne Dalton, chief operating officer of the Association for Junior Leagues International.

Dalton, who is familiar with the Richmond league’s rift, says her New York-based association’s role is to provide local, independent chapters with resources and services such as training, but not governing advice. “There will always be a delicate balance between the need for transparency of the board of an organization and the need to recognize confidentiality,” Dalton says. “That happens all the time.”

LaRiviere had recently consulted the association for advice pertaining to concerns she had about a proposed change in bylaws relating to how a member is voted out, according to e-mails between LaRiviere and the association.

Alice Lynch, a former president of the Richmond league, says the role of the board is clear: “Its responsibility is to look out for the interests of the organization. It did and it acted within its authority.”

Lynch, executive director of the Virginia Capitol Foundation, knows firsthand the pressures and social tripwires that the Junior League can create. She says that, though rare, she has seen Junior Leaguers become so ambitious that they lose sight of their voluntarism.

Supporters of LaRiviere say the league’s inability to peaceably resolve the LaRiviere situation signals something greater. Jill Hoover, a league member and past president, writes in an e-mail: “If we cannot get along through negotiation and compromise how can we expect nations to exist peacefully in this world?” S


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