Director's resignation does not 'change the termination of the organization's co-founders'

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BRATTLEBORO — The former president of the board of directors of the New England Center for Circus Arts announced Friday night she is resigning from the board.

"I committed 10 years of my life to NECCA, pouring my heart and soul into the betterment and continued improvement," wrote Elizabeth Warner, in an email forwarded to the Reformer. "I feel it is in my best interest for my family and myself to move on from the institution. I was the president for only five weeks but I saw some things that didn't look right so I asked questions."

She also urged the public to "further your investigation into the recent terminations for transparency, clarity, and the overall health of the organization going forward if it is to survive."

The email was in response to a correspondence from community members asking her to step down but not before re-instating founding sisters Elsie Smith and Serenity Smith Forchion, who were terminated as artistic directors on Monday.

"I came to the board very eager to help with fundraising and other activities to help it move forward and grow to be the biggest and best it can be and I feel I did that," wrote Warner. "Thank you for the opportunity to help grow the future of circus in New England. I truly wish the best for NECCA. Out of respect for myself and my family please remove my information from your public posts and campaigns."

And in a second email in response to a thank you for resigning, Warner cryptically wrote "You're welcome. I do hope the lemmings understand. Ask for an audit and see where you get."

At 6:30 p.m. on Friday night, NECCA's board of directors issued a press release announcing that the executive director, Michael Helmstadter, would be resigning effective July 28. In a public letter sent to Forchion and Smith, the board wrote "With this action on the board's behalf to save NECCA, we ask that you accept the option to stay involved with NECCA per the terms outlined in a letter to you dated July 10."

Several times the Reformer was in contact with Helmstadter, and each time he said he would return a call with a comment, however, he never did.

Helmstadter did tell the Keene, N.H., Sentinel on Friday that he needed to resign because of the persisting controversy surrounding his role.

"Rightly or wrongly, I have become a polarizing figure, and my concern is to diffuse as much tension as humanly possible within the organization," he told the Sentinel. "I'm committed to the organization continuing on, and I'm not going to let my presence get in the way of that. However, the arrangement will not change the termination of the organization's co-founders, Elsie Smith and Serenity Smith Forchion, and the contractual offer made to them Monday remains the same," Helmstadter told the Sentinel.

"We have seen the press release from NECCA ... informing us of changes in the leadership team," wrote Forchion and Smith in a press release issued at just past 9:30 on Friday night. "Some clarification is necessary regarding the offer to Elsie and Serenity specifically. The Board asks that '[the founders] accept the option to stay involved with NECCA per the terms outlined in a letter to you dated July 10.' Those terms, in a letter offering the choice of resignation instead of termination, read 'NECCA may continue to occasionally contract with Nimble Arts, your for-profit enterprise.' This is not a real offer to Serenity and I to work in a collaborative role to rebuild NECCA. We are open to an offer that includes us in planning and participating in the future vision of NECCA."

Forchion and Smith also noted that they are concerned that "this is just a reorganization of the same leadership team that we have been disappointed in. Today's resignation of Michael Helmstadter and Elizabeth Warner, followed by placing Mel Martin in the role of Board President of NECCA, is simply a reorganization of the same leadership team that we have been disappointed in."

Forchion and Smith asked that the current board formally include the voices of the many people who have expressed their concerns over the terminations and the direction of NECCA.

"It is important that this is an open door to including and welcoming the coaches team in the framing of the future of NECCA. It is vital that their voices are both heard and honored as the Board seeks to move NECCA forward. We still need specific examples as to how the community will be a part of the decision making process in the next 2 weeks as plans for the future are made, and we hope that the era of closed Board room doors is over."

Bob Audette can be contacted at 802-254-2311, ext. 160. Follow him on Twitter @audette.reformer.


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