Change sets off Jefferson County Food Bank Association upheaval

Former volunteers allege mismanagement

PORT TOWNSEND — A change in leadership at the Jefferson County Food Bank Association has caused a rift between board members and longtime volunteers with accusations of harassment, intimidation and mismanagement coming from both sides.

The Jefferson County Food Bank Association (JCFBA), a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, oversees the food banks in Port Townsend, Brinnon, the Tri-Area and Quilcene. Until last fall, it was led by an entirely volunteer workforce and board of directors.

But in November, JCFBA hired its first executive director, Patricia Hennessey, and earlier this year brought on new members to the executive team of the board of directors after several longtime board members left.

Former volunteers claim the new leadership has mismanaged the organization and behaved aggressively toward longtime volunteers, with one former volunteer filing an audit request with the IRS to look over JCFBA’s financials.

The situation came to a head recently when several longtime volunteer managers of the Tri-Area and Quilcene food banks left the organization, with some volunteers claiming they were forced out and JCFBA leadership claiming those individuals left the organization willingly.

Leslie Tippins managed the Quilcene Food Bank for nine years before she left the organization last month. Tippins said she never resigned; Hennessey said in an interview that Tippins and her husband voluntarily quit.

Several changes were made to how the organization had been run since Hennessey was hired, Tippins said.

“Our meetings were open. We could always bring people in. All of a sudden it was, ‘Nope, everything that you hear here stays in this room,’” Tippins said. “We kept asking to see the financials. We haven’t seen the financials since December. We used to see them every month; all the sudden, they stopped.”

Tippins claims she was targeted for retaliation by the board after she repeatedly asked about the status of gift cards typically distributed at the food banks during the holiday season. For the past few years, JCFBA has given out $50 Safeway gift cards sometime between Thanksgiving and Christmas, but this year, the cards weren’t given out until after Jan. 1.

After the cards were distributed, an attorney was hired to investigate claims that Tippins was harassing Hennessey, but the attorney, Todd Feinstein of Feinstein Law of Sequim, only made recommendations on how the board could improve its policies.

Hennessey said the cards were delayed in part because of logistical problems on Safeway’s side, but also because she took a vacation to deal with family issues and that the cards were distributed as usual shortly after the new year.

“(Tippins) did not accept the fact that we had a delay,” Hennessey said. “She was harassing me, inciting others against me and questioning my ability to manage financials.”

Another longtime volunteer, Caroline Schimke, sent several letters to the board of directors questioning Hennessey’s leadership and alleging violations of JCFBA bylaws.

“I am truly concerned about Patricia and her lack of inclusion and arrogant leadership style,” Schimke wrote in a Feb. 23 letter to the board. “She has changed the positive dynamic in this organization. These allegations should be taken seriously and given the same attention as Patricia’s intimidation complaints against Leslie.”

Schimke stated in her letters Hennessey was not responding to emails and creating a hostile work environment among food bank managers. Schimke resigned from her position with JCFBA on March 5.

Upset with the new direction of the board, Tippins said she sent a text message to board president Craig Uchida stating her husband was resigning, but that she would remain as manager until the completion of a new building for the Quilcene Food Bank.

Concerned about the language of the text message, Tippins said she met with Uchida to discuss her continuing on as manager.

But when she arrived at the food bank for the next distribution day, she was met by Uchida and another board member who presented her with a document acknowledging her resignation and asking that she return her keys to the facility.

Not wanting to disrupt that day’s distribution, Tippins said she turned over her keys but did not sign the document and stated she had not resigned.

Uchida said in an interview that his conversation with Tippins was ambiguous and that the board held an emergency meeting that evening to discuss the situation and concluded that Tippins had indeed resigned.

“I never was under that understanding that her husband was leaving and she was not,” Uchida said. “I asked her twice point blank; she didn’t give an answer to either question.”

On April 9, longtime Tri-Area Food Bank managers John and Sue Laird were met by Uchida, board treasurer John DiMaggio and a Jefferson County Sheriff’s deputy. Uchida said he and DiMaggio wanted to speak to John Laird about the food bank, and the board had found financial improprities coming out of the Tri Area Food Bank.

Concerned about a confrontation, Uchida and DiMaggio asked that a deputy be present, a service many law enforcement agencies provide.

Uchida said John Laird resigned before any conversation took place while the Lairds claim they were threatened with legal action if they refused, a claim which Uchida and Hennessey deny.

Shortly after, Tippins, her husband, Schimke and the Lairds all received cease and desist letters from Feinstein, telling the former volunteers to cease all contact with food bank volunteers.

Following the departure of the volunteers, JCFBA announced it was beginning a review of its policies and procedures as well as pausing its capital projects, including the construction of the new building for the Quilcene Food Bank, which broke ground in October.

Hennessey said many of the former volunteers were uncomfortable with the new management and the direction the new board was taking and chose to leave the organization.

“I think this is a change and a discomfort with these volunteers,” Hennessey said. “To bring in a leadership paid position is going to cause change, and that’s not a bad thing.”

Hennessey said the organization’s financials were not well-organized and that she and the board of directors are hoping to clean up JCFBA’s books in order to pursue state and federal grant funding.

“We don’t have a problem with that,” Hennessey said of the call for an audit. “If the IRS wants to get involved, we will absolutely put out the welcome mat because they will bring a lot of rigor to their financial review.”

Hennessey said the board voted on April 18 to conduct its own audit of JCFBA, and it is working on finding a third-party organization to conduct the review.

Meanwhile, construction on the new Quilcene Food Bank building has been paused while the organization prepares for a more formal capital campaign, Hennessey said.

Distribution operations at the food banks have not been disrupted, Hennessey said, even as JCFBA has seen a massive increase in the number of families using the service. Hennessey said JCFBA saw an average of 2,700 households a month accessing its food banks in 2023, but in the first quarter of 2024, that number rose to 3,200 households a month.

On April 10, JCFBA issued a news release stating it was reviewing its policies and procedures in response to the changes in personnel.

“JCFBA has engaged outside counsel for a review of all fiscal policies and procedures and is focusing on expanding community partnerships,” the release said. “New positions have been created to centralize operations, improve financial efficiency, and enhance the network’s capacity to meet increasing community needs.”

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Reporter Peter Segall can be reached by email at peter.segall@peninsulanews.us.

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