Bitter Squabble Over House Sales Splits Girl Scouts

Times Staff Writer

For years they have taught Girl Scouts to "be prepared." But leaders in three San Gabriel Valley cities say nothing prepared them to battle their own organization to save their Scout houses.

After a long and bitter struggle, community associations representing more than 650 Girl Scouts in Alhambra, Rosemead and Temple City have lost their fight to stop the Sierra Madres Girl Scout Council from selling their Scout houses to raise money for a new regional headquarters.

The Temple City Scout house, a ramshackle old Quonset hut dressed up with a false stucco front, was the last to go. Last month, leaders in the Temple City association lost a lawsuit they had filed in Los Angeles Superior Court to block the deal and their house was sold to a condominium developer for $86,000. Scout houses in Alhambra and Rosemead, where opposition was weaker, were sold several months ago.

Temple City has been allowed to use its house until an alternative meeting place can be found, but Alhambra's was demolished to make room for another condominium complex and Rosemead's was leveled for a parking lot, forcing those associations to find other meeting places.

Historically, the houses had been the center of activities most closely identified with scouting: troop meetings, classes and sleep-overs. "When I saw it boarded up it was like somebody ripped my heart out," said Sherry Jimenez of the Alhambra Girl Scout Assn.

The Scout house controversy is the latest in a series of rifts in recent years that have alienated many adult volunteers and brought disharmony to the council's 17 community-level associations, representing Girl Scouts in 23 cities and communities from Glendale to Duarte.

The troubles have sparked the kind of infighting that may be common in corporate board rooms, but somehow seems unexpected and out of place in in the halls of Girl Scout headquarters.

The disposal of the Scout houses comes as the 11,000-member council is in the throes of adopting a corporate structure to cope with management of its growing army of volunteers and the administration of an annual budget approaching $900,000. It has been a painful, not entirely successful four-year process. Earlier this year, the council's board of directors fired the executive director largely because of dissatisfaction with her handling of the transition.

But until the sale of the houses and ensuing lawsuit, the tensions were shielded from public view. The uproar made public what one board member characterized as the council's "dirty laundry" and has raised questions about the focus, direction and philosophy of the council.

Top council officials defend the decision, saying they carefully studied the Scout houses and found that they were underused and in poor repair. They say other property has been sold over the years for similar reasons.

The plan is to conduct training sessions, awards ceremonies and other group activities that had been held at the Scout houses in the proposed regional headquarters or at Scout houses in Arcadia and San Marino. A location for the headquarters has yet to be chosen.

"We really wanted to do what was best for all the girls," said Donna Ziel, who was board president when the decision was made. "Those girls were just (from) three cities. . . . It's the board's responsibility to take care of property for all the girls and to manage assets to make sure the council remains viable."

But critics contend that in getting rid of the Scout houses the council removed the heart and soul of community scouting programs. The associations acquired the houses long before they joined the council in the late 1960s and always viewed them as their own possessions. Local leaders say that for reasons of safety and convenience neither they or parents like the idea of transporting girls out of the community for routine activities.

"Our identity has been taken away," said Nancy Kelly of the Temple City Girl Scout Assn.

Moreover, leaders in two of the three cities insist that they were misled about the sale of their property.

Elizabeth Haynes, association chairwoman in Temple City, said that she heard in October, 1983, that the council board was considering selling her group's Scout house. She said she helped form a group called Save Our Scout House, which gathered 3,400 signatures on a protest petition. However, Haynes said, her group discovered by accident that the decision to sell had already been made when a real estate agent involved with the sale refused to sign the petition.

"They said, 'Don't worry about this. We're just thinking about it,' " Haynes said. "We found out they were giving us this nice old song and dance. They weren't being straight with us."

Joyce Diamond, association chairwoman in Rosemead, voiced a similar complaint. "They told us on the sixth day of a seven-day escrow."

Several unhappy volunteers emphasized the fact that none of the 30 members of the board come from the cities whose Scout houses were sold.

San Marino resident Barry Gledhill, an Alhambra auto dealer who until this month represented the Alhambra association on the board, called criticism of the board's geographical composition and integrity a "low-handed approach."

"There were not closed meetings," Gledhill said. "I believe most of the board members acted objectively."

But some Scout leaders say the controversy raises deeper questions about the way the council is operated and about the structure of its board. For example, although member associations raised nearly $334,000 for the council selling cookies this year, associations are not guaranteed a seat on the board, which makes budget and policy decisions.

And at a time when Alhambra, Rosemead and Temple City had no residents on the board, Glendale had three representatives. In addition, attorney Pam Prickett, a Los Angeles resident, sat on the board's property committee, which made the recommendation to sell the Scout houses. Although Los Angeles is not covered by the Sierra Madres Council, Prickett said she was asked to serve because her professional skills were needed to balance the membership.

Margo Pollard, recently nominated chairwoman of the Monrovia-Duarte association, said the Scout house incident made her realize that individual troop leaders and even associations have little voice in board decisions.

"I didn't lose anything, but I care that Temple City lost theirs and they couldn't do anything but file a lawsuit, and that hurts Girl Scouts," Pollard said. "The membership has no say. I hate to say that, but we do not."

Haynes and others placed part of the blame for the problem on the transition from a heavily volunteer-oriented administration to the corporate model, which emphasizes greater use of the 12-member staff in operations and scouting programs. Although most said they agree with the idea in principle, few like they way it has worked in practice.

"The corporate structure . . . has gotten out of hand," Haynes said. "They've developed corporate management and corporate morals to go along with it."

Several council members said the former executive director, Millie Nunn, did a poor job handling the transition. The officials said that many old-guard volunteers were reluctant to relinquish power to hired hands, and that Nunn's difficulty communicating with people exacerbated the situation.

Nunn said she was fired because of resistance to the corporate structure concept. "The communications thing is an old saw," Nunn said.

Disaffected volunteers say they still believe in the scouting program, but add that the council's decision to sell the Scout houses, as well as how it was handled, has shaken their faith in the Girl Scout organization. For the most part, the girls themselves have been sheltered from the conflict, but some dissident Scout leaders say they wonder whether the lessons they have learned in fighting the council are the kind of lessons they want their daughters to learn.

"I don't think I am going to leave my girls in the Scouts," said Kelly of Temple City. "When I was in Scouts, we were taught to honor and obey and trust. That's not what is being taught today. It's grow up and be cheated. Or grow up and cheat people. They're being cheated. What they are being taught is to grow up and stab people in the back."

Adding fuel to the fire is a widespread fear that the council board will decide to sell Camp Singing Pines, a deteriorating enclave in Angeles National Forest used for summer camping trips. Council President Jan Vallier said the board has not seriously considered that action.

Both sides say they are working to heal the wounds.

Executive Director Joyce Richards said she sees many positive signs. While the national membership, which stands at 686,000 girls, is shrinking by 3% a year, Sierra Madres' membership has been growing. It has climbed from its low of 6,100 girls in 1982 to 8,000 this year, not counting about 3,000 adult volunteers.

The council, which serves girls ages 5 to 17, has enlarged its program offerings, Richards said. It is conducting in-school scouting sessions in areas where there is not enough support for regular troops. And the council has latch-key programs for girls with working mothers.

"The key to making this work is good management," Richards said. "Girl Scouts isn't a little business anymore."

Said Vallier: "We can't change what's happened in the past. What we have to do is build for the future."

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