Over four months have passed since Robb Etnyre’s departure as general manager from the Tahoe Donner Association, and one month since the release of the Ink’s article outlining the volatile situation that led to the termination. Both were predicated by conversations that have been happening privately for years in and about the largest neighborhood in Tahoe/Truckee, and these dialogues continue feverishly, in direct correspondence to Moonshine, in online forums, and in continued complaints being filed with the association.
The shakeout is revealing a situation where differences in opinion grew ever more entrenched, with collateral damage in the form of uneasy employees, board members, and residents. While many actors in the situation remain at loggerheads, a clearing of the air is in the works and interviews for a new GM are just around the corner.
A question of leadership style
Etnyre’s turn-around of Tahoe Donner as an association was obvious.
So said Kyle Winther, manager at TD’s Trout Creek Recreation Center, who went on to describe a high level of productivity with Etnyre at the helm. The former general manager’s methods for running such a tight ship, however, he said, weren’t quite as fine-tuned.
“He had a very strict standard, which made a lot of employees not like him because he came from the Marine Corps and he was very, this is cut and dry,” Winther said. “That was frustrating to work with; I will not lie. There’s days I hated it, but the moral of the story is it got results.”
There were no extended niceties or kumbaya moments to celebrate accomplishments, he furthered, which led to poor employee retention: “Employees don’t feel like they get recognized at Tahoe Donner. That generally starts at the top, and Robb was definitely, you get the result and then we move on to the next project.”
An anonymous TD resident who moved into the neighborhood with a mindset to be an informed and participating member (and has thus been involved with committees) saw similar shortcomings, though noted that he saw Etnyre as coachable for improving his leadership skills and he wouldn’t have necessarily voted to terminate him.
“Evidently the board felt it was easier to get someone [to] … come in and learn the practical side versus Robb learning leadership skills,” the resident speculated. “And maybe they did and I just don’t know that. I would’ve given a crack on broadening the leadership side.”
In stark contrast, former board member Jeff Schwerdtfeger believes Etnyre was at the root of problems in the association, and was unwilling to amend his ways. Schwerdtfeger said that people who said he got “cold feet” about termination, as reported previously in Moonshine, were dead wrong. He described Etnyre as “insubordinate” and “abusive” to the board, as well as abusive to homeowners with differing opinions, both in association meetings and in private.
“The board of directors during my tenure made several attempts to take correcti[ve] action with the general manager’s behavior,” Schwerdtfeger wrote in an email. “I cannot be specific due to confidentiality concerns; however, the board exhausted all means to correct inappropriate behavior and actions by the general manager.”
The board, he said, had “due cause” for termination, but the “rational[e] for not terminating with due cause was purely based on economics. Legal costs for pursuing this tact would cost more than termination with compensation which is ultimately what was done.”
When he resigned six months before his term’s end date, Schwerdtfeger explained it was due to a “toxic and vile” atmosphere within Tahoe Donner — specifically a fraction of residents that “try and manipulate the board of directors into unnecessary spending, operating on an excessive budget, and attempt[ing] to justify an overpaid senior staff, in particular the general manager.”
Schwerdtfeger said he sold his home in TD due to the political climate and poor management of the association.
Current director Jennifer Jennings, highlighted in Moonshine’s original article along with fellow board member Jeff Connors, expounded on that “fraction of residents,” saying that before she and Connors and a couple of others joined the board, committee and board members were in “lockstep and you had to be part of this little group.”
Some have described Jennings and Connors as disruptors to a longtime established way of life at the association, shaking things up in a healthy way. Jennings said she ran for the board in the first place because the finance committee was “excluding members” when it came to a general manager compensation study subcommittee .
“That’s one of the easiest ways to make yourself unpopular — to say, well, wait a minute, maybe there’s a better way — if you’re not in the group,” she said.
On Etnyre’s termination, the board remains quiet, though Jennings was apologetic about that. In fact, much of her interview was spent biting her tongue over what not only she could say (legally), but what she should say.
“I’m sorry we can’t say anything,” she said. “Believe me, I would love to write up reasons why. But that doesn’t help Robb and I want him to get a good job, and it also doesn’t help us.”
She also spoke in her defense regarding claims that she planned to terminate Etnyre since the beginning of her directorship, as reported by Moonshine — she said that’s a false accusation. Her priority as a board member, Jennings says, was to have a working relationship that was satisfactory for all parties. Choosing to terminate him “was a hard decision. It wasn’t taken lightly and obviously it wasn’t, like people are saying, it wasn’t something I’ve been thinking of since the day I got on the board.”
Trout Creek’s Winther countered that point, however, citing conversations with 20 different members and a former girlfriend who was good friends with Jennings’ daughter who said otherwise.
“They were very clear from the start: ‘My mom is running to fire your general manager,’” he said. “That in general is a vibe you can’t get away from … It doesn’t matter if you’re pro or against Robb, there’s no way you can do your job well when you have people out there [saying that].”
Jennings countered this claim, saying she wouldn’t have discussed such topics with her daughter and that Winther’s former girlfriend was more an acquaintance than anything.
Winther says his feelings toward Jennings and Connors in the beginning were, if anything, positive; he believes he was actually one of the last to turn sour.
“I was probably the least in favor of Etnyre when [Jennings and Connors] got elected, and I was probably most on the fence of all the higher managers in TD about whether or not I liked the new board,” he said. “I’m pretty skeptical, and there were issues in Tahoe Donner.”
His openness to the changes lasted two weeks. Winther explained that he saw a shift in focus within the association, from productivity to politics, with board members draining his staff’s morale and demanding lightning-fast changes. One of his coworkers described it as trying to make a cruise ship do speedboat maneuvers, and Winther agreed: “That’s the hardest part, working underneath this board, is your changes that have to happen on a daily basis all because of how reactionary they are. Instead of trying to predict what might be happening, they just want to react to it … that’s really tough to deal with.”
A “smear” campaign
Risen to the top of some Tahoe Donner conversations is speculation about complaints made against Connors regarding intimidation, bullying, and harassment.
Charles Wu, board president, submitted a statement to Moonshine Ink in response, stating that in 2017 and 2018, employees did file complaints against Connors, which “were investigated by an outside neutral investigator. The results of the investigation were that the conduct complained of and determined to have occurred by Jeff Connors did not violate the law. TDA was never served with any lawsuits, and there were no settlements paid.”
He furthered that the complaints were about personal style and communications, but “any insinuation that Jeff Connors unlawfully harassed, bullied, or discriminated against any TDA employee or member is simply inaccurate.”
To Jennings, the complaints made against Connors are unfair, a “smear.”
“We don’t want to discourage people from submitting complaints, but … these were such minor complaints,” she said. “It could’ve just been addressed by talking to Jeff privately and saying you need to be aware about how you come across to someone.”
No employee complaints have been made since 2018, though multiple have been made recently from TD members, one of which is Suzy Knisley, former board member and president, who served for a brief time with Connors.
On Feb. 21, Connors penned a post on social media forum Nextdoor directed at Knisley. In part, he called attention to what he saw as Knisley’s “blinding obsession with [Etnyre] and the many improper actions during your four months on the board you took, which led to you being the second board member in TD history to be censured by the board and resulted in your resignation a week or so before the election.
“You also don’t talk of the reign of terror your fellow board members accused you of when you were on the board 10 years ago and that micromanagement [that] you drove.”
His posted ended with a suggestion that Knisley “consider a different approach before there are further consequences.”
Knisley told Moonshine that her communication with Etnyre was only ever professional, “and to suggest otherwise is unacceptable.” Her official complaint with the association, however, didn’t stem from Connors’ Nextdoor post, but from her time of service on the board with Connors.
Of the complaint, submitted Feb. 26 with follow-up comments on Feb. 27, she made the following statement “in defense of [her] good reputation” regarding what she sees as Connors and Jennings’ frustration with her.
“Their attitude towards me changed dramatically when I would not cast their requested third vote to replace Robb as general manager,” she wrote via email. “Jeff’s inappropriate manner of addressing me then became aggressive and rude, especially in executive session.”
Jennings adamantly disputes that there ever was a decision to replace Etnyre during Knisley’s board tenure.
Knisley resigned from her directorship of her own volition, Knisley continued, “when Jeff’s behavior rose to the level of completely unacceptable to any woman or a board member.” Michael Fajans, serving as a board member with Knisley and Connors during this point in time, said he would serve as a witness to Knisley’s grievance, which is currently under evaluation by the association.
Connors declined to comment on the situation.
Leading TD into the next decade
Plans are still in place to have a new general manager by May. Among other experiences and competencies, the association seeks candidates with a minimum of 10 years multi-line management experience, operational experience managing a $5 million-plus budget, and have shown staff responsibility with over 100-plus full-time employees.
“The Tahoe Donner board of directors is committed to taking the next steps to secure a general manager that will lead Tahoe Donner into the future and maintain its unique charm and strong member experience for years to come,” wrote President Wu in his formal response. “We are committed to moving forward as a team in the best interest of the members and working with a consultant and TD management to set up the next general manager for success and to reestablishing strong working relationships.”
Reflecting some of her concerns with Etnyre, Jennings said she prefers someone who’s more engaged in the community and has a good working relationship with the Town of Truckee to represent TD in town decisions. Jennings highlighted one example of the latter criteria in the fact that the town sponsored state legislation that voids HOA covenants with regard to secondary units. If TD had a better relationship with the town, she believes, this bill might not have happened. Moonshine reached out to Etnyre, who declined to respond to statements made by Jennings.
Downtime between GMs is being overseen by a transition team, which Jennings described as “quite good,” with a solid understanding of the association’s needs, comprised of Mike Salmon, director of finance and accounting; Annie Rosenfeld, director of risk management and real property; and Miguel Sloane, director of operations.
“I’m looking forward to having a general manager who finds it easy to collect all opinions and say, this is the direction I think we should go in, and talk to the board,” she said.
The aforementioned anonymous resident said his hopes center around a better staff-board relationship come time for the new GM: “My view is empowering the staff, not micromanaging the staff by the board, and the board not thinking the worst of the staff.”
Compensation for the general manager is a base salary of $220,000 to $250,000. The association’s search committee will hold interviews with prescreened, selected candidates on April 6 and 7.
Main Image Caption: END OF TERM: The terms of board members Jennifer Jennings and Jeff Connors are up in June; neither director would tell Moonshine Ink whether they’re running for a second term. Association members will have the opportunity to vote on who will sit in two of five fillable seats later this year. Photo by Wade Snider/Moonshine Ink