Florida Blood Centers board members know no term limits

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Leighton Yates joined the board of directors at Metro Orlando's major blood bank in 1975, when Gerald Ford was president and the movie Jaws was scaring people out of the water.

Yates is still with Florida's Blood Centers and, as an attorney, his firm provides both unpaid and paid advice to Florida's Blood Centers — fees worth more than $1 million since 2003.

Assuming the post of chairman 15 years ago, Yates has no plans to leave Florida's Blood Centers because the agency does not enforce term limits for its volunteer board members or chairmen.

Industry experts argue that board turnover is healthy, so much so that the majority of nonprofits nationwide typically allow members to serve no more than six to nine years.

"After a while, you start running out of energy. You're kind of on autopilot," said Chuck Loring, a senior governance associate at BoardSource, a Washington, D.C., agency that monitors and advises nonprofit boards.

Added Ken Berger, president of the nonprofit watchdog group Charity Navigator, "everybody gets very comfortable, settled in. The danger is less accountability, less innovation."

Yates is hardly the exception at FBC. A fourth of the 40-member board has been in place for at least 11 years, according to Internal Revenue Service records.

FBC and its board have caught the attention of state Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach, who last month asked the staff of the Health Regulation Committee he leads to look into the agency's business practices and those of the blood-bank industry in Florida.

Gaetz said he is especially interested in business deals FBC board members routinely make with the nonprofit, as well as the price it charges to sell blood to hospitals and medical facilities. He plans to have a committee hearing in the coming months.

The FBC board is drawn from the region's top employers and community leaders. It sets policy and votes on purchases of at least $100,000, leaving the daily operations to top manager Anne Chinoda and her staff, though Yates often is involved in key decisions, records indicate.

Founded 66 years ago, FBC has long allowed board members to sell goods and services to it. Agency officials say the deals often are struck for below-market rates and cannot be made unless the affected members excuse themselves from voting.

The policy has resulted in:

•Yates' firm, Holland & Knight, being paid more than $1 million for legal services since 2003, the first year the IRS pushed for such payments to be reported. In 2005 alone, Holland & Knight was paid $310,609, in part because Yates led FBC's $16 million purchase of a failing blood bank in South Florida.

• Darden Restaurants selling almost $1.6 million worth of restaurant coupons to FBC in each of the past three years. The $10 gift cards cost FBC $5.50 each and often are given to donors as a token of appreciation. Darden's senior vice president, Bradford Richmond, has been on the board since 1998.

•Orlando-based Eidson Insurance selling more than $2 million worth of policies to FBC from 2004-07. Ted Eidson, who founded the company, was board chairman from 1980 to 1995, when Yates took over. Eidson now is a board member emeritus.

Yates and Chinoda have promised to work with Gaetz during his investigation. FBC also is putting together its own seven-member committee, chosen from the board of directors, to review the agency's policies and practices. Term limits could be discussed and recommendations could be made by the committee to the full board in November, FBC spokeswoman Susan Forbes said.

In an interview, Yates said that board terms limits are "a point on which reasonable men can differ."

He said he understands the argument for a changing cast but contends a blood bank is a complex venture that can take years to fully comprehend and manage correctly. He has been re-elected unanimously by the board each year since becoming chairman.

He says his long service with FBC has been mutually beneficial.

"I believe the things I've learned as a lawyer has helped me as a chairman, and I believe the things I've learned as a chairman has helped me as a lawyer," he said, adding that he annually donates 300 hours of his time to the agency.

FBC, he said, has become one of the largest independent blood banks in the nation during his tenure.

"We've worked things well. Our prices have been good. We've grown," he said.

But FBC is in the minority when it comes to term limits.

A 2007 BoardSource survey of more than 2,100 nonprofit leaders found that almost 70 percent of the respondents had boards with term limits. More than nine in 10 board members, the survey said, served three years or less. FBC members serve one year at a time. They are not paid, but they are eligible to be reimbursed for any expenses they incur while doing agency work.

"Bringing in new board members on a regular basis keeps away stagnation and gives the board an opportunity to renew itself. Each board should establish its own system for defining term limits," reads a BoardSource release.

A spokesman for America's Blood Centers, a trade group with 77 members in North America, including FBC, said his organization has a "mix" of board policies.

"More recently, however," Mack Benton of America's Blood Centers said in an e-mail to the Orlando Sentinel, "we see blood centers institute increased rotation to refresh their governance ... it's finding the right balance between the ability to recruit good people as volunteer leaders and retaining those already providing good service."

One of FBC's main competitors, Community Blood Services of Lauderhill, does not employ term limits but does prohibit the chairman from serving more than three years.

Loring said the lack of term limits "is really not an inclusive message. It says good-old-boys, good-old-gals networks."

Dan Tracy can be reached at dtracy@orlandosentinel.com or 407-420-5444.

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