COLUMBIANA CO. Bureau defends office closing

A state director in charge of Portage, Stark and Summit counties now is in charge of local programs.
LISBON -- Contracting with the state farm bureau federation for organization director services will save the Columbiana County Farm Bureau money and improve member services, president Lucille Huston says.
The board voted Aug. 27 to contract with the state, and closed the county office Saturday. Huston explained the change at the county farm bureau annual meeting Thursday.
Although the change leaves Nancy Cope, organization director, and office secretary Renae Unkefer unemployed, Huston said the board and other officers hope members will view the change as a positive one.
Huston said Joanne Menning, former county organization director, will serve Columbiana County. She is a state organization director based in Canton, and organization director for Stark, Summit and Portage counties.
What's behind this: Huston said one reason for the change is that the board determined the local office to be custodial, and that most members do their farm bureau business by phone.
The Canton office is staffed five days a week, 7:30 a.m. to 4 p.m., and can be reached by a toll-free number, (800) 654-5158, she said.
By closing the county office and contracting with the state, the local farm bureau will save at least $15,000, Huston said. That money can be put toward farm bureau programs.
The county paid about $13,000 for Cope's salary and $1,200 a year in rent.
She said office equipment and furniture would be sold, and that money could fund programs.
Huston introduced Carol Baker and Sue Anderson, two of the three secretaries at the Canton office.
She said Menning, who lives in Salem, said information that members request will be mailed promptly, and she would deliver other large items such as farm bureau signs.
Member's questions: Member John Garwood questioned why members were not notified of the change and learned about it through local newspapers Thursday. He asked if the board gave any consideration to allowing the membership to vote on the change.
Huston said the board and officers did not intend to make the change public before notifying members at Thursday's meeting but responded when newspaper reporters learned of the change ahead of time and called her.
She said the board sought the advice of a management consultant who said it was the board's prerogative to decide whether to contract with the state.
Huston said there are other reasons for the change she did not wish to make public. She said she did not think the problems of a private organization should be aired to the public.
She said she would not comment further openly because the press was present but invited any member with questions to speak to her or board members after the meeting.
Garwood expressed concern that negative publicity would affect membership.
"Some of you have told me you will take your memberships elsewhere, but I hope you will give us a chance," Huston said.
She said the board had planned to make the change Oct. 1 but voted Aug. 27 to close the office Sept. 1 because Cope and Unkefer resigned.
What's in dispute: Cope has said she and Unkefer did not resign. She said she did send the board a letter dated Aug. 23 in which she expressed concerns about the board's plans and presented a suggested severance package.
She said neither she nor Unkefer were made aware of any problems with their performance. She said they were not given opportunity to discuss the situation but were simply advised that if the board chose to contract with the state, they would be unemployed.

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