Trust on trial at SCW Rec Centers
Article Courtesy of The Arizona Republic

Posted July 24, 2002

The weather isn't all that's hot in Sun City West. Tempers in this retirement enclave of about 32,000 are reaching the boiling point, as residents pack meetings by the hundreds to protest actions of their Recreation Centers board. 

Not since the issue of possible incorporation raised its ugly head about three years ago has a local issue generated so much heat. There are three specific targets of resident fury: what they perceive as an overly generous severance package given the retiring general manager; changes in the bylaws that appear to increase the board's power and decrease the residents' input; and too many closed-door board meetings. 

But these are only the surface issues. Like the fallout from the recent corporate scandals that have rocked the nation and the stock market, the basic issue is one of trust: The residents don't trust the board to do what is best for them and their community. 

"The board, with the assistance of their attorney, gives our bylaws and the (state) laws a very broad interpretation that basically allows them to shut the community out," said Robert Finn, whose term on the board began July 1. 

Board President Allen Young doesn't see a problem. 

"I believe the board communicates well with the owner/residents through open board meetings and workshops, a community newsletter and various postings on our bulletin boards," he said. 

Finn and a few other dissidents have established an organization called Sun City West Owners for Open Government to keep residents informed of board actions and to pressure board members to conduct their business in public. The board should "inform every homeowner of how every penny of his annual assessment is spent," the new group says. It has no officers, no dues and no planned meetings. 

"We're all just people who enjoy the democratic way of life and want to keep our community pretty and open," the organization states on its Web site,

The openness of the board in dealing with residents is at the heart of the controversy. The Recreation Centers of Sun City West runs the community's recreation facilities with mandatory annual assessment fees of $170 per person. Its duties are much like those of a municipal park district, which also is financed by mandatory payments - in that case, property taxes paid to the municipality. 

Since they are forced to pay assessments to the Rec Centers, residents argue that they have a right to know what happens to that money, including how much is paid to organization executives. They believe that the board is also subject to the Arizona Open Meeting Law and should conduct all business, except for personnel and legal issues, in public. 

Not so, the board says. 

"The Recreation Centers of Sun City West is an Arizona non-profit corporation, NOT (Young's emphasis) a governmental institution," Young said. "Over and over again, we tell people we are not under the same Open Meeting Laws as a school district, city or county governmental body." 

The Arizona Open Meeting Law governs public bodies, which are political subdivisions of the state (cities, courts, state agencies, etc.). Those laws do not apply to a private corporation like the Rec Centers, according to an attorney familiar with open-meeting issues. There is a separate body of law that addresses homeowners associations and applies to the Rec Centers and which contains certain "open meeting" provisions, the attorney said. 

That's why executive salaries have never been published until recently, when the former and present general manager gave their written permission, according to Young. It turns out that former manager R.G. Andersen-Wyckoff's compensation package was $134,319 a year before he left July 1. He was given a severance package of $93,405 that included approximately eight months of base pay, vehicle allowance, direct payment in lieu of 401(k) plan and medical insurance. The new general manager, Jon Cannon, is to receive an annual compensation package of $108,325. 

Young said the severance pay was not part of Andersen-Wyckoff's contract. He said the board has a policy statement covering severance pay. 

But that statement doesn't provide severance benefits in case of voluntary separations like Anderson-Wyckoff's, according to former board member Dudley Gibson. Gibson also said, in his communication posted on the Owners for Open Government Web site, that never in his three years on the board was the subject of a car allowance or direct payment in lieu of 401(k) participation for the general manger discussed. 

It's discrepancies like this that the owners group would like to avoid in the future. 

The group believes that every document developed to carry out the business of Sun City West should be made available for every interested homeowner's inspection. It also believes that every top-level employee should have a written contract of employment that is public record. 

The 40 pages of bylaw changes proposed by the board this spring were not properly explained, many disgruntled residents have said. Hidden in the legalese were two that were particularly offensive. One change would have allowed eight members of the board to vote the ninth member off the board, thus disenfranchising the voting public, who put that member in the board. 

Another proposed bylaw change would have allowed the board to "levy special assessments to be collected on each residential unit." If this were done in a "secret" meeting held under the guise of "personnel business," residents wouldn't know about it until they got the bills. 

It is possible for the Rec Centers board to operate within the law and still find ways to communicate more effectively with residents. Until that happens, trust will continue to be on trial in Sun City West.