By: Susan Paterno
Greater Los Angeles Press Club members in a civil war
over legal control of the organization in an effort
to reverse recent declines in membership and prestige sp.
THE LOCKS ON the doors of one of the country’s oldest and wealthiest press clubs were changed recently, prompting a civil war between longtime friends and colleagues.
A dissident faction of the Greater Los Angeles Press Club’s board is battling the president and her supporters for legal control of the club, whose recent decline in membership and prestige mirrors the changes experienced by aging press clubs nationwide.
After being locked out, president Dusty Brandel filed a lawsuit, alleging some of the club’s members staged a coup and secretly deposed her in order to gain control of more than $400,000 in club assets.
A Los Angeles Superior Court judge reinstated Brandel as president and granted her request for a restraining order to prevent the dissident board members from access to the 48-year-old club and its finances. In the meantime, the club’s longtime office manager lost her job.
Ross Olney, who until a few weeks ago was the club’s vice-president, denied the charges of financial impropriety.
“Neither side is trying to steal the money,” he said. “That’s a criminal act. Nobody’s going to do that. The money is a smokescreen.”
The real issue is control of a press club at the crossroads. To survive, both sides agree, the club must lose its image as a social group dominated by public relations and advertising people and become a professional association that attracts more and younger members of the working media.
But Brandel and Olney disagree profoundly on how to change it. If the battle drags through the courts, a Pyrrhic victory may kill the club, Olney said.
“The press club will sooner or later get hurt,” he said. “It will have to pick up the [legal] tab. The bylaws protect board members from incurring legal fees.”
Ali Sar, a former club president and executive editor/administration at the San Gabriel Valley Newspapers, characterized the feud as “childish and unproductive. It’s destroying the club.”
Of the original board members, Sar says he is the only working journalist currently employed full-time by a media group.
The dearth of journalists in the press club is what prompted the dispute in the first place; more than half of the club’s 420 members are not working reporters and editors, said president Brandel, who added that “membership is dropping.”
During the summer, the board began discussing a reorganization.
“We wanted to become a club of news people,” said former board member Sar, “for the credibility of the press club.”
Recommendations included reducing the number of board members from 24 to 12 and limiting voting membership to working journalists.
Based on research and what she called expert opinion, Brandel identified those who were not journalists and removed them from the board. She did so, she said, to bring the club into compliance with its 1946 charter, which stipulates that only working press act as voting members.
Olney and others agreed with the idea of reducing the number of board members and including more working journalists. But they disagreed with Brandel’s methods.
Olney, a free-lance writer, argued that Brandel, also a free-lance writer who works fulltime selling ads, had no right to unilaterally remove board members. The members, not the president, “should control who’s on the board,” he said.
He helped form a new board, which voted to remove Brandel as president. The new board named Olney as president and changed the locks on the office door. Brandel contacted an attorney and set the legal battle in motion.
“Can you vote on the fact that you’re in conflict with your charter?” said Brandel’s attorney Kate Neiswender, the daughter of past president and Brandel supporter Mary Neiswender. “Once it’s discovered, how do you fix it? You just bite the bullet and fix it. It’s not something you can vote on.
“We’re trying to use this lawsuit in a calming manner, to stop the dispute, put the club back on track,” she said. “There were no money damages sought.”
Neiswender declined comment on why the office manager was fired or who will pay for the legal fees incurred while the feuding factions battle it out in court.
“That is not the public’s business,” she said, “nor yours.”
Both sides said they want to prevent a protracted legal fight and hope to settle before the next court date. But neither side seems willing to compromise.
Olney said he will “fight to the end if my lawyer will permit it.” And Brandel refused to commit to compromise. “You’ll have to take that up with the lawyers.”
The club will remain active, said Neiswender, until the next scheduled court appearance.
All over the country, older press clubs like the one in Los Angeles are facing similar problems. Younger journalists are more career and family oriented and tend to have little interest in joining a social club dominated by public relations people, said Sar. “We need to redefine our course,” he said, “to increase our membership.”
?( Paterno is a Los Angeles Freelance writer and an assistant professor of journalism at Chapman Univeristy) [Caption]