News: Family Feud

Sister city activists try to get along

Dec 19, 2002 at 2:06 pm

The Sister Cities Association (SCA) of Greater Cincinnati is supposed to forge lasting friendships across the globe, but its own internal fights are tearing it apart.

The Munich Sister City Association — one of seven sister city committees in Cincinnati — no longer wants to be part of the SCA, which coordinates efforts between committees.

Cincinnati City Council's Finance Committee heard complaints Dec. 9 from Munich committee member Bob Stevie about the SCA "putting demands on our volunteers for statistics, spreadsheets, forms to fill out, committee meetings to attend and demanding that they will control our access to City Hall."

"The Sister City Association has become for us a nightmare," Stevie said.

City council voted this week to eliminate the $20,000 in funding SCA had expected from the city in 2003. Sister city programs are not essential city services, according to Councilman John Cranley. But the funding cut also reflected the squabbling within SCA.

"Obviously there was a lot of internal division there," Cranley said.

Big Sister is watching
The Munich association first notified SCA in October that it wanted out. In a Nov. 27 letter, SCA President David Savage responded by calling the move "ill-advised and short-sighted." Only the SCA board can release the Munich committee, according to Savage.

"We've got an awful lot of very dedicated volunteers who are working very hard in causes they believe in to try to make Cincinnati less of a parochial city than it tends to be," he wrote.

The Munich committee's request is a symptom of deeper problems in SCA. These issues were expected to be the center of a Dec. 17 SCA meeting.

The Munich group is probably the largest and most successful of the sister committees. It has about 60 members, including about 20 or 25 active ones, according to its publicity chair, Charles Boersig. Although Munich was the fourth sister city for Cincinnati, its committee organized before the SCA was founded in 1985.

Every year the Munich committee organizes about 15 student exchanges, several teacher exchanges and exchanges involving doctors, lawyers and other professionals, Boersig says. The committee raised $200,000 for a Munich Pavilion in the Theodore M. Berry International Friendship Park and helped influence Hofbrauhaus, the famous Munich brewery, to open its first North American location in the Tristate.

The Munich committee members are fed up with the SCA board, which has changed from a group of volunteers who serve the committees to a group that expects the committees to serve it by raising money and filling out paperwork, according to Stevie.

"The problem in this whole thing is the structure of the organization," he said.

Boersig agrees.

"I guess the problem we have with the umbrella organization is they do nothing for us," he says. "We used to work with them, and now we're kind of being cut out. It sounds like we're crybabies, but that's not it."

Besides Munich, Cincinnati has sister city committees for Harare, Zimbabwe; Gifu, Japan; Nancy, France; Liuzhou, China; Kharkiv, Ukraine; and Taipei-Hsien, Taiwan.

As fewer sister committee volunteers have attended monthly board meetings, newer volunteers have had more influence. This has led SCA to become more isolated from the sister committees' work at the grassroots level, committee volunteers say.

Savage and SCA Director Florine Postell often respond to complaints by saying they're only meeting the terms of the SCA's contract with the city.

"Everything that's going on is according to the governing rules of the organization," Postell says.

About a year ago the SCA board signed a contract making the board the coordinator for the seven sister committees — a contract that provided $22,830 in funding in 2002, $15,500 of which is for Postell's part-time salary. A similar contract had been in place since 1990.

The contract mandates the SCA should receive all communications from the committees to City Hall and to the sister cities, Postell says. It also requires semi-annual reports and advance notice to the city of any visiting foreign delegations.

Postell, who's been working with SCA since 1994, says she's "stunned" and "hurt" by what some volunteers are saying about SCA. But the management styles of Postell and Savage are also at the center of SCA's disputes, according to volunteers.

Corrine Kinebrew has been working with residents of Harare, Zimbabwe on debt relief, AIDS education and other projects since the late 1980s.

"Perhaps what the problem is that Florine doesn't understand what it takes to develop international relationships," Kinebrew says. "My sense of what Florine has been trying to do is make a job for herself. ... We're talking about people-to-people relationships. We're not talking about making major deals."

Postell, SCA director since 2001, has a bachelor's degree in international trade from Texas Tech University and other training.

Dr. Henry Morozumi, one of the founders of the Gifu, Japan committee, has worked on sister city projects for about 15 years. He says the committees should be able to do their work with little SCA interference.

"We don't need them to go to the bathroom," he says. "We can do those things by ourselves."

Boersig says the Munich committee might need some help from the SCA arranging home stays for visiting guests.

"I don't see much else that they can do," he says.

Postell says one of the points of the contract was to make sure the sister city committees aren't competing for City Hall's attention and time. SCA is there to serve the sister committees, she says.

In his Nov. 27 letter, Savage said none of the Munich committee members complained about the contract last year before it was signed.

SCA's information requests are only designed to promote the committees' work, Postell says.

"In the big picture, we're all part of the same program," she says. "Whenever anybody has a call — has a need — it's provided."

But that isn't often, if at all, according to Kinebrew, who wasn't sure when she last asked Postell for help.

"She really can't tell committees what to do," Kinebrew says. "That's just a really inappropriate stance to take."

'It's strayed significantly'
Unlike many of the other SCA board members, Adam Gerhardstein, 20, doesn't have a long history with sister cities or the SCA board. The Xavier University sophomore got involved a year ago after volunteering for three months in Kenya.

He hasn't been in the middle of any of the disputes, so he's been able to see both sides. However, he shares the impression that SCA is too distant from the sister city committees.

"I think it's time for change within SCA," he says. "I think it's strayed significantly from a forum which the committees gained something."

Gerhardstein says there is a purpose for SCA. He's excited about SCA projects such as Clay Color Fire, a mural project for the Theodore M. Berry Friendship Park involving artists from all seven sister cities.

Gerhardstein expects serious discussion among the SCA board and sister committees next year about the future of the organization.

"Cincinnati's international community is so small I think that it needs to stick together," he says. "We really need to keep our eye on the big picture. I think that's the heart of it." ©