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Chamber director gets the ax, tells her side



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February 19, 2014 - It's one of an employee's worst fears – being fired upon returning from vacation.

For Holly Bills, that fear became a reality when she was terminated Monday as the executive director of the Oxford Area Chamber of Commerce.

"I feel completely destroyed," she said. "I feel crushed. I feel like everything that I have built for five years has just been snatched away."

Bills had held the position since July 2008.

While she was on vacation from Feb. 7-14, Bills said chamber representatives banned her from a Facebook networking page she had created for chamber members, took down the Facebook page she had created for the chamber and locked her out of her office.

"They cleaned my entire office out while I was gone," she said. "They changed my locks. They went through my stuff. To me, it felt like there was a mission (in place) before I even left."

Then on Sunday, Feb. 16, Bills said she received a text message directing her to attend a chamber executive committee meeting the next day. It was there that Chamber President Debbie Uren, who took office last month, informed Bills that she was fired.

"I'm shocked," she said. "I feel completely blind-sided."

Bills said she was given three reasons for her termination – 1) "Your office is a mess;" 2) "We're going in a new direction;" and 3) "There were unpaid invoices."

She noted there were also accusations that she was "hiding things" in her office such as items donated to the chamber for use as prizes at events.

Uren declined to comment on any specifics regarding Bills' termination.

"I'm not going to be answering any questions," she said. "We, as a chamber, are going in a different direction and so, as she was told, her services were no longer needed. We have other avenues that we're going to be going down and that's basically it."

When asked to explain what this "different direction" will entail, Uren replied, "At this time, I can't."

She said the chamber board would be discussing that topic at its Tuesday, Feb. 18 meeting.

"We'll be talking about exactly which way we want to be going," Uren said. "So, no, I can't tell you at this time (what the new direction will be) only because it hasn't really been fully and completely decided."

"We're going in a new direction and we just want to get all our ducks in a row right now," Uren added.

Immediately following her termination, Bills came to the Leader office because she wanted to make sure the public knows her side of the story.

"I have nothing to hide. I'm not going to go back and put my head (between) my knees and let everybody believe what's being said," she said. "The last thing I want anybody to say (about me) is we found items hidden in her office (and) she wasn't paying her bills. I have a reputation out there that I don't want to be tarnished. I didn't do anything."

"I am a person of ethics. I'm a professional person. I don't do anything outside of that realm," Bills noted.

Bills admitted she has a "messy office."

"Okay, I'm guilty of that," she said.

But that's the only thing Bills says she's guilty of.

"(Uren) told me I was hiding things in the office," she said. "I wasn't hiding anything."

The items Bills said Uren was referring to were things donated to serve as prizes at chamber events like Ladies Night Out.

"They were leftovers," she said. "(When an event is over), everything goes in a bin and they get sent to Holly. Then, I have to sort through it and figure things out from there."

Bills explained if it's an item that was paid for, the appropriate person is contacted and asked to pick it up. If it's an item that was donated, it's used for future chamber events.

With regard to the items found in her office, Bills said, "I thought that they were all taken care of."

"When you're running an office and your main priority is getting money through the door (because) you're a nonprofit, some of those incidentals (fall) by the wayside," she explained.

"(Uren) said I hid items like I was trying to be sneaky," Bills continued. "She's saying she doesn't trust me. I wasn't hiding anything."

She noted that once she found a $250 VISA gift card that was an unclaimed prize from the Women's Expo. She said she could have easily just kept it and no one would have ever known, but she did the right thing and reported it.

As for the unpaid invoices, Bills said that's the nature of the beast.

"Our chamber of commerce is a nonprofit organization," she said. "Sometimes (it runs on) a shoestring budget. You do the best that you can."

"I knew there were some outstanding invoices," Bills continued. "Financially, we come into December, it's tough. There's not a whole lot of money there . . . (In) December we have no money coming in, nothing. People are not renewing (memberships at that time) . . . We don't get tax dollars. All we (have) is memberships, sponsorships and fund-raisers."

The bulk of the chamber's membership dues are paid between January and March, according to Bills, so that's when she's able to play catch-up with the organization's debts.

"We've been in this situation before," she said. "This is not a new rodeo for me. I've done it for five years. You manage the bills the best you can. That's what you do. Bills get paid when money's in the account."

That's why Bills said signed chamber checks made out to various vendors were found in her office.

"When the money became available, I was going to pay them," she said. "Holly's not hiding anything here. The checks were visibly sitting on my desk, not stuck in a drawer."

"I'm not going to stiff anybody," Bills noted. "I would, right now, pull out my own credit card and pay for something if I felt like it was going to clear (things)."

Bills indicated she's paid for chamber-related things out of her own pocket before and never requested reimbursement.

"I've sponsored events," she said. "I've sponsored events through my husband."

Bills said she fully understands that she was an at-will employee, but she's not pleased with the way the chamber treated her.

"I don't feel like they handled this professionally at all," she said. "I'm very, very disappointed and I've very upset."

"To me, you take money, lock up the doors because you can't trust this person," she continued. "But I didn't do anything like that. I've never done anything (illegal)."

According to Bills, she's "never been written up" by her superiors and during her last evaluation in July 2013, her marks were average or above average. She said there was an issue with her being disorganized.

"When you're chief cook and bottle-washer in an office, sometimes things happen," she said.

In the end, Bills doesn't believe the chamber showed her the same amount of respect that she's given to Oxford.

"I can go to most businesses here in Oxford and feel like I've done right by all of them," she said. "I don't feel shameful. I wouldn't come to you today if I felt shameful or like there was something to hide. I feel I have treated every single person in this community with respect. No matter what their differences have been with me personally, I still made sure that I respected them as an individual."

Bills said she's upset the chamber board didn't have the "decency" to ask her questions and hear her side of the story.

"Everybody's innocent until proven guilty," she said. "I've run this chamber with integrity. I've put my heart into it and I'm very disappointed in the decisions that have been made. I'm very, very disappointed in the way that they chose to (handle this) because I didn't just take this position five months ago. I took this position five years ago. I felt like I deserved a little more respect than what I was given."

Bills noted that when she took over as chamber director in 2008, the recession was just beginning and over the next five years, she worked hard to keep the organization afloat. "I've been able to keep these doors open," she said. "I've been able to keep things going."

And now, things are improving. Prior to leaving for vacation, Bills said she talked to 35 new businesses and recruited seven new chamber members in January.

Although she's upset about how she parted ways with the chamber, Bills said it doesn't in any way diminish her five-year experience as whole.

"I was grateful to have had the opportunity to get to know and help so many wonderful business owners," she said. "I think that's important to say."

According to Uren, there is no set timetable to hire a new director. One will be hired "as soon as we find somebody to fulfill the job that we need fulfilled," said.

When asked how the vacancy will be filled until a new director is found, Uren replied, "I don't have a comment right now on that. I cannot answer that."

CJ Carnacchio is editor for The Oxford Leader. He lives in the Village of Oxford with his wife Connie and daughter Larissa. When he's not busy working on the newspaper, he enjoys cigars/pipes, Martinis/Scotch, hunting and fishing.
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