Habitat officials still mum on Huth's firing

Habitat officials still mum on Huth's firing

CHAMPAIGN – Three top employees at Habitat for Humanity of Champaign County have just over one year's experience – combined.

Eileen Gebbie, hired in May as volunteer and outreach manager, is serving as interim executive director after the board's dismissal of Laura Huth on July 6. Development Director Megan Wolf was just hired, replacing Anna Olson, who left June 30 after one year on the job. Gebbie's predecessor, Annisa Rainey, lasted less than a year.

Another top employee, construction coordinator Paul Zindars, was hired in June 2005. He was set to resign when the board fired Habitat's leader

Habitat officials are still mum about the decision to dismiss Huth after two and a half years as executive director.

Board President Steve Clarkson refused to say whether staff turnover may have played a role in Huth's firing.

Zindars planned to resign earlier this month, but has withdrawn his resignation and remains on the job. He declined comment on his change of heart.

His resignation was set to take effect July 6, the same date that the Habitat board met and voted to fire Huth. She was notified about the termination the next day.

Clarkson said he and the board are pleased Zindars changed his mind.

"He has a great understanding of construction and how projects flow and he's very good at it, as evidenced by how well 'Home Builders Blitz 2006' went," Clarkson said.

In the blitz last month, four new homes in Champaign were built by local contractors for Habitat in a single week.

Clarkson has refused to discuss reasons for Huth's dismissal, saying the board decided to go "in a different direction."

"What I don't want to do is cause issues between Laura and the staff. It's been a personnel issue," said Clarkson, who is deputy fire chief in Champaign.

"I wish I could explain to everybody what happened. I'm not allowed to, and furthermore it wouldn't do anyone any good to air this kind of thing. Out of concern for what's best for Laura and our staff, we just can't speak to this," Clarkson said.

"We are focusing on doing the work that God has given us the privilege to do. This was a difficult decision, and it was made in the best interests of Habitat for Humanity and the great work that's being done in this community."

Clarkson did say the board's vote at the July 6 meeting, attended by 13 of the 19 Habitat board members, was unanimous.

"I can assure you it's something we put a good deal of time in and considered what's best for the organization. It wasn't made quickly," Clarkson said.

He also said the decision had nothing to do with conflict-of-interest questions that forced Huth to resign her seat on the Urbana City Council 10 months after taking the Habitat post. The Department of Housing and Urban Development, which dispenses funds for affordable housing to cities, had concerns about Huth's dual role as alderwoman and Habitat director.

"That issue was dealt with, and it was a nonissue at this point," Clarkson said.

Huth said she has yet to get a full explanation from the board, either verbally or in writing. She said the turnover at Habitat wasn't inordinate for a "fast-growing organization creating a lot of new positions," including the volunteer manager and development director.

"Have we had people leave? Sure. But I think like any organization that grows like that, and at that speed, we were experiencing some growing pains," Huth said.

Huth said she's hired an attorney, John Otto, but hasn't decided whether to take any legal action. She said she's already found employment opportunities.

"I've already landed three consulting jobs doing social change work, and I have three more in the works," Huth said. "I'm continuing to make this community a better place."

Last week, Clarkson posted a note about the staff changes in Habitat's online newsletter.

"Ms. Laura Huth has served as the executive director ... for more than two years and has returned the organization to sound financial status and has helped grow the organization to the present ability of building six homes annually. The board of directors is appreciative of her service and wish Ms. Huth the best. (Habitat for Humanity) will immediately begin a search for a qualified progressive individual to fill the executive director position," he wrote.

In the interim, Clarkson said, the staff will continue its work and proceed with the planned move of the Homeworks store and Habitat's administrative offices to their new home at 119 E. University Ave., C, by the end of the year.

The Champaign County Habitat used to include Piatt County, but volunteers from Piatt County formed their own affiliate last year at the suggestion of the Habitat regional office in Chicago. Co-coordinator Ed Jester of Monticello, a retired agronomist, said the split was amicable and had nothing to do with Huth's leadership. Jester, who learned of Huth's firing from a reporter, said he wasn't surprised but declined further comment on the board's decision.

Zindars, who is from Mahomet and has been in the construction business for 11 years, is overseeing the remodeling of the former Salvation Army space at 125 E. University Ave., C. It will be the new home of Habitat administrative offices and its expanded Homeworks resale store.

Gebbie referred questions to Clarkson, and most board members did not respond to inquiries from The News-Gazette.

Habitat homeowner Sandra Holloway, who's served on the Habitat board for a year, declined comment on the board's decision, which she didn't know was coming until she got to the meeting July 6. She called Huth "a good leader."

"She was a good person, she really was," Holloway said.

Bevin Webb-Page, whose family received one of four Habitat homes built during the blitz in June, was "shocked" at the news.

"Habitat obviously as an organization did a lot for my family that even this can't take away from," she said. "But Laura personally put herself into my family and into the other homeowners' families. She was just always available. It wasn't just work, it wasn't just 9 to 5. No matter what my question was, or what was going on, she was there, she was caring. And it was very sad to me to hear that she was gone. Because I feel like that was her heart."

She recalled watching Huth persist with the power company when the Habitat families had trouble getting a speedy transfer of their electric service.

"I think she's definitely a strong personality, but I think that's what you need to change an entire community," Webb-Page said. "You can't just have this quiet person who's just going to accept no for an answer and accomplish anything."

Supporters praised Habitat's strides under Huth's leadership, including construction of six to eight homes this year and substantial growth in the Homeworks resale shop and Habitat's overall revenue. But others noted there had been years before Huth's arrival in which Habitat built five or six homes, and that other staff deserve credit for the growth, too.

"There's no question that Laura's efforts have made a difference in raising the bar in terms of what Habitat's done in the last couple of years," said former board member Craig Chamberlain, who served when Huth was hired. "Habitat in many ways is bigger than one person, and I think that a lot of what we've built and a lot of what Laura's helped to build is going to continue."

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