Just How Bad Are Things At Cascade?

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Cascade, the nation’s largest bicycle club, is in disarray. Chuck Ayers’ firing by the board is just the scab on a festering sore. Staff members “are looking over their shoulders,” as one put it, having little unified guidance and not knowing how secure their jobs will be under a new executive director. There is talk among veteran members of recalling the board. Infrastructurally, Cascade’s rickety data base and chaotic Web site badly need refreshing.

Then there’s the thorny issue of the future of David Hiller, Cascade’s singular advocacy voice. Although no one inside the club, including Hiller, will say anything publicly, the clear message is that the David Hiller of old does not fit the Cascade blueprint moving forward.

The good news is that just about everyone from junior staff to senior board members understands the challenges, which one called “opportunities.” The bad news is how much has to remain on hold till a new ED arrives.

To be sure, bike clubs the world over would love to have problems brought on by more than 30 percent growth over the past two years, to 13,000-plus members. The salary Cascade is offering for the executive director — $80,000 to $100,000 — is bigger than the entire budget of many cycling organizations.

By the same token, pushing the reset button is going to take time at a juncture where the club’s community presence is more vital than ever. It will turn the board into the equivalent of club management working full-time non-profit jobs, something board members understandably have mixed feelings about.

The turmoil makes recruiting a new executive director a hugely taller order. At the same time, the club must prepare for its signature winter-spring events, including the annual Seattle Bike Expo, bike swap meet and Chilly Hilly recreational ride.

It all creates an explosive backdrop for the club’s annual meeting 6:30 p.m. Oct. 21 at REI. While typically only a few dozen members attend, with most itching to dispense with official business so things can move to the ever-popular slide-show portion, this year’s event could draw several hundred — well beyond the capacity of REI’s meeting room.

A Different Kind of Advocacy?

Cascade is enjoying unprecedented clout among local officials, lawmakers and business leaders. “We have politicians coming to us, asking what they can do to earn Cascade’s endorsement,” said board member Tim Hennings. Last fall’s elections solidified the club’s influence, with bike-friendly candidates Mike O’Brien (city council), Mike McGinn (Seattle mayor) and Dow Constantine (King County executive) all buoyed by Cascade’s endorsement and active support.

With Ayers’ support, the club’s advocacy vision and implementation has largely been shaped by Hiller, a tireless lobbyist and politically savvy in-fighter. Much of the credit for infrastructural progress in Seattle — bike lanes, road diets, completion of the Burke-Gilman and Interurban Trails — redounds to Hiller’s brilliant vision and dogged spade work.

“I’m deeply humbled by and greatly appreciate the outpouring of community support,” Hiller said by phone. “But I’m not authorized to speak for the club at this time.” The latter itself is quite a departure — for several years Hiller has been the most quoted and visible club official.

“David is tremendously effective and has accomplished incredible things — but I couldn’t stand working with the guy,” said a former Cascade executive who, like many interviewed for this piece, requested anonymity because of ongoing relationships with the club.

Descriptions of Hiller’s style tend toward “direct” and “confrontational” more than “genial” and “diplomatic.” He does not suffer fools, and he refuses to sugar-coat.

Case in point: Renton’s recent decision to impose a 10 mile-an-hour speed limit on cyclists on the Cedar River Trail — a restriction that for a commuter or veteran cyclist is like forcing a marathoner to walk. The change was rationalized by the death of an elderly pedestrian after colliding with a cyclist on the trail — but it also seemed more punitive than reasonable or necessary.

“We find Renton’s response to be unsound and grossly disproportionate,” Hiller told the bike blog BikingBis. The comment may have aptly verbalized the dismay the cycling community felt, but was problematic from the standpoint of professional PR and an eye toward future rescinding of the 10-mile limit.

“It could have been handled differently and better,” said a Cascade insider, who cited the Renton case as “indicative of how we need to alter our advocacy process.”

But a “different” style of advocacy is seen by many members as “PC” and ineffectual. Longtime cyclists know the only way to get change is to fight hard and stand up to political pressure from the highway lobby and car culture. Doing so may not always require the hard-nosed approach of a David Hiller — but when it does, only a David Hiller will succeed.

Consider what board members seem convinced is a “backlash” against cyclists manifested in debate over road diets (Nickerson and 125th Streets), bike boxes, cycle tracks and other progressive measures. Longtime cyclists have heard the same complaints for years. “There’s no backlash,” one asserted. “Cyclists just happen to be gaining ground and finally getting their due, so the opposition is getting bent out of shape.”

For Cascade, Hiller may be a case of can’t live with, can’t live without. A new executive director “may look at David and say, I don’t want any part of that,” a board member told us. But a former Cascade executive said, “I wouldn’t be surprised if a new ED said we’ll give David a chance to change, do peer reviews and after three months assess how things are going.” That’s if he stays with Cascade — Hiller was rumored headed for Mayor McGinn’s staff earlier this year and has been mentioned as a potential legislative staffer.

Anyone with any history at Cascade would hate to see Hiller go. As Seattle City Council member Mike O’Brien put it, “A Cascade without David Hiller is a far less effective organization than a Cascade with David Hiller.”

For better or worse, it’s fair to expect a gentler, less hard-edged advocacy from Cascade — with “the same goals we’ve always had, but a professional approach,” Hennings said.

A New Transparency?

The handling of Ayers’ departure — announced without notice or dexterity — points to another source of membership frustration: organizational transparency. Members complain that, after taking their annual fee, club leadership offers little in the way of communication or explanation of its actions.

Some members blame the board for control-freakism. On the club’s message board (online forum), a thread erupted in support of recalls, which would require a petition from 5 percent of the membership (650 to 700 members) and vote at a specially convened meeting with a minimum of just 25 members present. From dialog on the forum, however, there seems little consensus on the wisdom of such a move.

Another tack would be write-in votes on two current ballots for board members. One widely mentioned candidate, Michael Snyder, founder of the closely read bike blog SeattleLikesBikes.org, said he’s not sure a recall of the board would be advisable or that he would want to serve. “I’d consider it,” he said, but only if it became apparent “there is an urgent need to get a different style voice on the board.”

According to Hennings, who has emerged as the on–the-record spokesperson for the board, “none of us wants to be running Cascade Bicycle Club.” But till a new ED arrives, Hennings said, “we’re committed to doing what it takes to keep the club on track.”

Transparency is high on the board’s agenda. First up: Winning the trust of the membership. Hennings said the board wants to “channel negative feelings into positive energy” at the annual meeting “and build from there.”

Facing similar membership disillusionment, Cascade’s off–road cousin, the Evergreen Mountain Bike Alliance, held an all-factions-invited powwow at Duthie Hill Mountain Bike Park last fall. Breaking the gathering into small groups, with each naming a leader to take notes and report back to the plenary, Evergreen managed to turn potential mutiny into a feel-good brainstorming session. Many of the ideas were subsequently implemented, with resulting membership increase and engagement (although notably Evergreen still lacks a permanent executive director as well).

About that Web site

Like many non-profits, Cascade has long had “Web update” on its to-do list. The club site bristles with information that often is nigh impossible to find even with an internal search. The message board is clunky and antiquated in the era of Facebook and Twitter. The home page looks mostly like a calendar listing.

According to Hennings, president and founder of ObjectPublisher Web Services, which produces custom PDF brochures and catalogs, a sweeping makeover has been in the offing for more than two years and will be implemented within the next six months. It will run on a Drupal-CiviCRM open-source platform popular with membership organizations, the issue being ongoing support once the changeover is made. Drupal is sophisticated but complex, and maintaining it requires a certain amount of programming chops.

While improving the Web site is one goal, interfacing with Cascade’s booming membership also is driving the change. Large organizations necessarily need repeated tech “touches” with members to ensure they re-up and engage with club activities. Strong database management can automate things like sending emails about rides a member has been on before, logging member participation in events and rides on an annual basis (info that’s golden during re-up time), having vital statistics of club members for political campaigns, PR and corporate sponsorship purposes, and simply gaining new blood.

Database feedback also is vital for planning purposes. Cascade watchers say the club is in danger of ossifying — its demographic is heavily weighted toward the forties and older.

Cascade’s technological needs are such that it plans to scour the tech sector for a potential ED. Certainly locally, the Puget Sound region is surfeit with cycling techies, most notably evinced in F5 Networks’ sponsorship of Bike to Work day last May.

What next?

Cascade’s immediate future looks like the proverbial stack of dominoes, with Hiller being the lead chip. Whether he stays or leaves will have a huge impact on subsequent steps, starting with the annual meeting. If he stays, the club will have to decide whether to unmuzzle him or find a different strong voice to lead. In its absence, a palace revolt could well gather momentum.

The next few days promise to be crucial.

UPDATE: Cascade’s annual membership meeting did little to quell dissension.

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4 thoughts on “Just How Bad Are Things At Cascade?”

  1. Paul, who’s the “former executive” and Coward Emeritus? As far as I know Chuck Ayers is the ED who hired Hiller and cleaned house among the staff, so I’m not sure what “executive” capacity this person would have served in.

  2. Cascade’s “advocacy” is too often “alienation.” Hiller’s style might be good in NYC but really sucks around here. It should be easy to pass certain safety laws. Hiller makes it hard. PC isn’t the solution. Advocacy skill is. That’s been lacking at Cascade: For every elected official supporter of Cascade’s advocacy there are probably 50 who oppose, for no other reason than the bullying stupid mob boss tactics. Cascade has turned off way too many people, way too often.

    I’m a guy on a bike who sees the damage done every day. It has meant millions in loses to bike safety projects and failure when it comes to sensible laws that make things more safe for everyone on the road or trail.

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