Last Friday, Oct. 1, Mike Smith, a dispatcher at the Asheville Police Department, says that he attended a meeting that didn't just present information about United Way activities but also actively solicited donations from employees. Smith's supervisor, Capt. Sarah Benson had told him the meeting was mandatory.
"When I was told we had to attend one of these, I questioned it," Smith tells Xpress. "I said that I didn't want to go, and my supervisor said, 'Well you have to, every city employee has to go.' I didn't want to go because I contribute to other nonprofits of my choice. I shouldn't have to listen to their spiel. To say it was necessary to become aware of the programs [that United Way runs in conjunction with the city] is false, we're already aware of them."
When he arrived, he says, Benson handed him a donation form with his name already written on it.
"I had to mark in $0. There was an option for deducting one hour of your salary a month," labelled "your fair share contribution" he recalls. "I found the wording offensive. It was awkward, when you're sitting there and your name's already on the form. I even had other employees ask what I'm donating. I already donate to other groups."
On Sept. 14, APD employees received an e-mail from Benson about the United Way presentations.
"I am serving as the 2010 United Way Campaign coordinator for APD and in the coming weeks we will have several rallies," she wrote. "In our line of work we cross paths with people from all walks of life in our community that are struggling just to survive and have no where to turn to for help. We also see first hand the work of several agencies ( 2-1-1, Red Cross, MANNA food bank, Helpmate, Our Voice, Hospice, etc.) that are supported by United Way stepping up to help people on a daily basis."
She emphasized that "giving to United Way is NOT MANDATORY," but added that "I ask everyone in APD to consider giving to United Way if all all possible. No gift is too small."
"Everyone will need to attend a rally," the e-mail concludes, before listing dates and times for different APD shifts.
"They kept saying you don't have to donate," Smith notes. "They stressed that, but if you have to go and you know you're not going to donate, why are we wasting taxpayer dollars on this? I'm not taking away from United Way, I know the officers do work with them a lot and they do some good things, but it seemed like they were getting preferential treatment."
The roll-call meetings were mandatory, Hogan says, because they also involved department business — in this case voting on a new schedule — but the United Way portion was not mandatory, according to both Hogan and city spokesperson Dawa Hitch.
"I take responsibility for this, there was a breakdown in communication" Hogan tells Xpress. "One way we communicate face to face with our employees is roll-call meetings. We meet with everybody. There's never any pressure about donating to the United Way. We pass out the forms, but if they don't donate, that's fine. It's never pressing people to do that, it's just offering them the opportunity to participate if they want."
He adds that some miscommunication may have occurred: "Generally, if an employee tells their supervisor 'I have no intention of giving to United Way and I'd like to not to attend,' we'd be ok."
Also, at the meeting, Smith says a representative of the Gideons handed out Bibles, launched into a sermon and lead the room in prayer.
"He's got these stacks of Bibles and he opens to Romans and starts reading a verse," he recalls. "I'm being paid to be there. Then he tells a story about getting Bibles into Eastern Europe in 1989. He mentioned missionary work and the 'word of God' a lot.
"After he told his story," Smith continues. "I was like 'Are you kidding me?' Then he asked us to pray with him, which was uncomfortable. I'm at work, I shouldn't be asked to pray. I question why we have to sit through this on city time. It's completely unnecessary."
Hogan says he has apologized to department employees for the Gideon presentation, adding that it was not what the APD expected.
"It got twisted, I feel really bad about that and take full responsibility," he says. "That was simply a request for Gideons International to come, put Bibles at the back and say, 'If you want a Bible, take one.' It didn't go down as I expected. I've communicated to the personnel of this organization that I apologize that it happened. To anyone that was offended: That's not what we're about and I feel very bad about that."
He adds, "Police officers are under a lot of stress," and while the APD has a chaplain's program and makes information on programs available, "obviously we're not here to preach to anybody, we're just here to help our employees and this one [the Gideons' presentation] went where it shouldn't have gone, quite frankly. It had unintended consequences and it won't happen again."
Full disclosure: Smith is the partner of Xpress staff reporter Michael Muller
— David Forbes, senior news reporter
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