On its face, Robb Etnyre’s termination as general manager of the Tahoe Donner Association seemed pretty straightforward; it was a parting of ways, and he’d been looking for new opportunities anyway. He’d headed one of the largest homeowners associations in the state for more than 10 years, with excellent reviews and contract extensions by previous happy boards.
The private association, according to the posted General Manager Transition FAQ, wished Etnyre “the best in his next endeavor.”
Yet Etnyre left nearly two years prior to his official September 2021 end date, and reports of unrest swirl on the hill.
At the Jan. 31 TD board meeting, president Charles Wu provided insight from the board perspective: “The consensus of the board was that Robb’s skillset and performance was no longer what Tahoe Donner needed in the GM position.”
There was no felony nor fraudulent act, Wu assured the attendees, and because Etnyre’s contract allowed termination for cause under “very, very narrow grounds” like those mentioned, he was terminated from his position without cause and received a severance payout of $230,000 (one year’s salary) when he left on Dec. 6, 2019.
Wu’s remarks certainly confirmed one thing a number of TD residents had thought: Etnyre did not leave; he was let go. It didn’t, however, address the crux of the matter, claims that a long-standing clash between Etnyre and two TD board members, Jeff Connors and Jennifer Jennings, were the reason Etnyre left. Numerous residents, including several former board members, reported to Moonshine that over the past two years, there has been growing alarm over a mounting consolidation of board member power.
Etnyre’s departure, these residents allege, was simply the culmination of a long-time-coming attempt to gain a board majority to dismiss the general manager, causation be damned.
A well-oiled machine
Etnyre came to Tahoe Donner on June 15, 2009 after retiring from the Marine Corps as the commanding officer and executive officer of the Mountain Warfare Training Center in Bridgeport.
“My experience … in the Marine world, mostly you get a lot of overseas,” Etnyre told Moonshine Ink. “But really being able to settle down in one community and be accepted and be a part of the community and trying to make a difference in everything we’re doing in the community — it was tremendously meaningful to me.”
Courtney Murrell, who’s lived in TD since 2003 and has worked, volunteered, and served as a board member for the association, noted what she saw as Etnyre’s stand-out accomplishments, including the implementation of snowmaking machines, the demolition and rebuilding of the Alder Creek Adventure Center, and the purchase of Crabtree Canyon.
“Truckee locals used to refer to Tahoe Donner as Total Downer,” Murrell said. “Robb turned this place around, building it into a thriving resort community for all seasons.”
Come 2017, Murrell continued, the association was running “like a well-oiled machine.”
“The budget was set and met,” she furthered. “Necessary capital project investments were made. Committees were working well with the board and staff. The community was growing, healthy, and positive. The board was collegial and in sync. The board believed in the Tahoe Donner vision statement. And the GM executed on that vision.”
Another former board member, Steve Miller, who also served as board president, echoed Murrell’s comments, citing such GM performance warranted Etnyre’s salary increases and contract extensions, as approved by the board.
“Generally, his evaluation was excellent,” said Miller, now working as a cross-country ski instructor at TD’s Adventure Center. “Over six different years, six different boards, we all felt the work he was doing here in Tahoe Donner was exceeding expectations.”
A number of community members felt otherwise.
“There was a split in the community and the board about how fast to upgrade facilities and really make sure that we kept up with the market in terms of what people were looking for,” said Michael Fajans, a 25-year TD property owner who served on the board for a short stint. “… and an element (even though all the surveys seem to suggest it’s a small element) are very concerned about the increase in dues. Which has not been dramatic, but it certainly has been going up.”
(The current assessment fee for homeowners association members, which subsidizes TD’s amenities, is $2,065 per year. From 2010 to now, the fee has risen 59%; from 2005 to 2010, it rose 31%.)
The “small element” utilized the social media platform Nextdoor as its megaphone, venting concern over the Adventure Center reconstruction, the purchase of Crabtree Canyon, and Etnyre’s executive salary.
Jennifer Jennings honed in on the latter two prior to her board of directors position, sharing her frustrations at multiple board meetings about real estate decisions being made during executive sessions (aka behind closed doors) and Etnyre’s compensation involving a deferred payout.
Jeff Connors’ appeal for a board run focused in part on the association’s fiscal spending and “managing [the association’s] financial and environmental resources in an effective and efficient quality manner so that Tahoe Donner remains affordable” (a listed campaign goal).
Both Connors and Jennings held heated exchanges at board meetings with Etnyre prior to sitting on the board, and Etnyre did not stand down.
“If Robb had a fault,” former board president Miller said, “it was that he was mission-dedicated. He occasionally might be too confrontational with members who felt entitled … His Marine philosophy was if he felt his board members were being threatened or challenged, he would step in to defend. He was very honorable that way.”
Connors and Jennings were successfully elected to the Tahoe Donner Board of Directors in July 2017, seemingly coming out of nowhere, some say.
TD resident Dick Gander said most board members had previously served on various committees (general plan, finance, etc.) for a couple years to understand the association.
“But Connors and Jennings didn’t have the background,” said Gander, who himself is a former board and general plan committee member. “They came to the board meetings and decided things were messed up and they needed to get on the board to fix them … They got on the board; they didn’t do much fixing.”
Three hours into the duo’s first regular board meeting on July 29, 2017, after a lengthy discussion on delegation of authority to the board president (at this time, Connors), Etnyre cut in.
“There’s been a very clear indication that you’ve communicated to my staff, President Connors, that you have a board majority,” Etnyre said. “Matter of fact. And it’s been communicated to me by several members of the community and staff, you have indicated that I will not be here very long; that I’ll be terminated.”
Connors disagreed with Etnyre, saying “your character assassination is not appropriate and it’s not in tune with what I think took place.”
Tuned or not, shots had been publicly fired. Gander explained that the pair made life “very miserable for Robb” regarding his ability to perform as general manager.
“They wanted to be involved in every decision and didn’t want him doing anything that he hadn’t passed by them,” Gander said. “Which, when you read about how to screw up a homeowners association, that’s the first thing, where the board doesn’t let the general manager be the general manager.”
A former staff member with Tahoe Donner, who asked to be anonymous due to job security, shared a laundry list of themes “thrown out on the table” by Jennings and Connors over the course of their term: “They definitely have some master plan in mind, whether [or not] it’s to change the face of Tahoe Donner. I’ve heard talks of privatizing, keeping the public out, shutting down the amenities, [and] firing the general manager.”
This person described over-micromanagement by Connors and Jennings, explaining, “there was a lot of busy work created by them among many staff members, especially senior staff. A lot of people were spinning their wheels.”
Enough that several senior staff left the association because of the contention, sources said. In fact, Moonshine learned that there have been multiple complaints made against Connors regarding intimidation, bullying, and harassment.
“I know this happened twice,” stated a different source via email. “I made numerous formal complaints in writing from July 2017 [to] July 2018 and was interviewed by an attorney hired by TD in February 2018, along with other employees who made formal complaints. It appears that another professional has been brought in to investigate new complaints against Connors from committee volunteers. I believe there have [been] 7-8 different employees or volunteers making complaints, with 7-13 separate complaints in total since July 2017.”
Corey Leibow, who served as president of TD’s financial committee until this past December, resigned from the position in protest due to Connors “bullying the finance committee as well as many of the staff members.
“Although he never intimidated me one second,” Leibow said, “I saw him intimidating people both on our committee and our staff. I felt like I needed to resign in protest because I didn’t like the environment that he was creating.”
All in favor
The perceived goal of getting a board majority to officially terminate Etnyre swung back and forth from 2017 through 2019.
“For a while, Jeff Schwerdtfeger seemed to have similar views as [Connors and Jennings] did,” former director Fajans said. “They had a board majority for a while and did not do anything in terms of terminating [Etnyre]. Then when I got on and then a month later when Director [Suzy] Knisley was appointed after Darius’s [Brooks] death, it was very clear that they did not have a majority to do that.”
Speculation is that Schwerdtfeger got cold feet on terminating Etnyre and there wasn’t an opportunity again until Charles Wu’s successful campaign. Thus, in July 2019, Connors and Jennings got their majority wish. At the very least, Etnyre’s ties with Tahoe Donner were severed months later.
Moonshine Ink contacted TD board members numerous times for comment, and two members responded, deferring questioning to President Wu, but he did not respond come print deadline.
“My own sense is the board voted 3-2,” said an anonymous source about the termination decision, which was determined by the board during executive session. “… I think Jennings, Connors, and Wu voted to end his contract early without cause … I think [Jim] Roth and [Don] Koenes voted to keep him.”
Roth is probably a safe bet, particularly after his comment at the Jan. 31 board meeting.
“You said there was board consensus,” he said to Wu regarding Etnyre’s termination, “which implies we all agreed and that’s not true … You have basically said something I think is not correct and I want to correct the record.”
Plans are for a new general manager announcement to be made come May 2020. With this hiring, Leibow pointed out that the association will be double paying for an amount of time, considering Etnyre’s severance pay, as well as the expense of hiring an executive search firm.
“You’re talking about a board who’s trying to ‘penny pinch’ every place they can …” Leibow said. “And yet you’re going to pay out some enormous sum to a guy that you let go, where in most accounts from knowledgeable people, he’s done a very competent job. And you don’t have anybody to replace him.”
Connors’ and Jennings’ terms are up in June, and the two will need to re-run to stay on the board.
As for Etnyre’s view of his dismissal, he said there were no surprises, but he’s not sour grapes about the affair.
“I’m not the kind of person … [to] call my old employers evil or anything like that,” he said. “It’s not my style, it’s not productive. I think people who are intuitive or understand, they see through all that stuff.”
Main Image Caption: BOARDED: Tahoe Donner is governed by a board of directors. Elected members sit in their director positions for three years. Photo by Wade Snider/Moonshine Ink