Three directors of the Virginia Thoroughbred Association resigned from their board positions June 28 over the controversial firing of former executive director Glenn Petty earlier this month.
Anne Poulson and Ernie Oare, both past presidents of the VTA and former members of the Virginia Racing Commission, submitted a joint resignation notice with Dr. Jens von Lepel, general manager of leading state breeder Audley Farm.
The three former directors cited "fundamental differences with the board on proper and acceptable conduct concerning the termination" of Petty, who has some 30 years of experience in the Commonwealth's Thoroughbred industry.
Petty was fired June 3 after having served 10 years in the position, his third term as the VTA's executive director. The firing came during a secret meeting of the board where VTA president Wayne Chatfield-Taylor admitted to giving late notice to Oare, Poulson and von Lepel because they were considered friends of Petty. In the meeting Chatfield-Taylor told them the notification was so they could not "tip off" Petty, the former directors alleged in their statement. Oare and Poulson said they were notified at 5 p.m. on a Sunday about the meeting that was being held at noon the following day. The VTA bylaws require that all directors be given 10 days advance notice of an upcoming meeting.
The statement also noted the VTA gave Petty no formal notification of cause for his firing before or after the June 3 meeting.
Virginia is a "right to work" state, however, meaning Petty could have been dismissed without cause, and he also did not have a contract with the VTA.
The three former directors said in their joint statement it was no longer "possible for us to work with a board that glosses over the manipulation of the bylaws, disregards normal corporate governance procedures, approves the intentional exclusion of directors from fair participation in the process, and demonstrates a lack of respect for and fair dealing with a long-term employee with decades of service to our industry."
Poulson said in previous years the association has had to deal with one executive director that was incompetent and another that embezzled from the association, and in both these cases the board had followed proper procedure in dealing with their dismissals.
"Many of the current board members were involved in these dismissals and know the procedure," she said. "While the action was legal, it breached due process, it breached board protocol, and obliterated human decency."
Oare and Poulson said they suspect Petty's dismissal came from a misguided belief that the VTA was not doing enough to address declining association membership and falling foal crops; problems, they noted, that are national concerns but magnified in small-market Virginia.
"The problems in Virginia are terrible, but the only way to improve it is to generate more revenue, and that means more handle," Oare said. "We are trying to build PR and promote standing stallions in Virginia and this isn't the way to do it."
Poulson, Oare, and von Lepel called for a special board meeting after Petty was dismissed and pressed the rest of the board for reasons why Petty was let go and why board protocol wasn't followed.
"What I heard was a lot of small complaints; maybe things that could have been done in a more professional way, but again nothing was said to Glenn," Poulson said. "In the end there was no remorse and no one felt bad about the process. It is one of the worst things I've seen in my professional life."
Chatfield-Taylor said June 28 the VTA was at a "fork in the road" and a majority of the 19-member board recognized the association needed to go in a different direction. On June 6, the board (excluding support by Poulson, Oare, and von Lepel), appointed past VTA president Debbie Easter as the new executive director. Some of the association's operations will be handled by Easter Associates Group, a company operated by Easter's family that manages trade associations.
"We are facing a number of issues," said Chatfield-Taylor. He cited land preservation, the future of Colonial Downs, and a changing political climate in Richmond among the priorities. "Debbie brings a fresh energy to those issues and a fresh belief that these are challenges and not simply items on a list of dire predictions.
"The association does not wish anybody harm," he continued. "We wish everyone well and hope they rejoin us."
When pressed for specific reason's Petty was dismissed, Chatfield-Taylor said: "If you are asking me to air the detailed discussions of the Virginia Thoroughbred Association board, I’m not going to do that."
Petty did not share Chatfield-Tayor's assessment that no harm was done.
"I'm in the same bewildered state to this day," he said. "No one has ever talked to me. No one ever reached out to me. No one thought about how this would look for me or how it would look for the association. Now I'm walking around under a cloud. They lost an ally, and they lost any hope of a smooth transition because they burned the bridge completely to the ground."
Petty served his first term as VTA executive director in 1980. Between his three terms as executive director, he served on the associations board of directors for 12 additional years. Petty served a key role in the adoption of account wagering in Virginia and secured a percentage of the account wagering handle to support the state's breeders incentive fund.
Chatfield-Taylor was quick to point out that Petty had not done anything illegal or unethical.
"It was a question of whether the glass is half empty or half full," Chatfield-Taylor said. "Glenn did not do wrong. We certainly hope he will rejoin us in other ways."
That reunion is unlikely, according to Petty.
"To go around my back and to go around others' backs is hard to stomach," Petty said. "It sounds sinister because it is."