The Goldendale Sentinel - Headlines & History since 1879

By Lou Marzeles
Editor 

Ekone Ranch actions focus of concerns

 

White Eagle Memorial Preserve Website

Ekone Ranch sprawls across 1,060 acres around Rock Creek Canyon near Goldendale. The facility is an off-grid, working ranch with horse camps, personal and group retreats, and programs that teach sustainable living skills. It's the site of White Eagle Memorial Preserve, a natural burial ground. Its idyllic image may belie a backstory of what some sources are calling significant ethical and non-profit compliance issues.

The ranch, operating under a 501(c)3 IRS tax-exempt structure called the Sacred Earth Foundation (SEF), bills itself as "A place for children of all ages," and among many people-including its detractors-the organization is recognized as doing a lot of good work. Many of its programs and staff are widely praised, serving a highly engaged niche appeal. The ranch has close to 30 horses and runs horse camps in the summer, largely aimed at girls. SEF's White Eagle Memorial Preserve is a natural burial ground certified by the State of Washington where the deceased can be laid to rest in a natural setting by the family. The ranch holds workshops and educational events, drawing upon instructors with acclaim in their fields. Its web site recognizes Ray Mitchell, who died suddenly in 2007, as the moving force and originator of the ranch, and mentions his partner, Nancy Fisse Davis, commonly called Fisse.

Davis is the person SEF first removed from the property and then removed from the board of the organization she helped form. Since that time, Davis has been investigating possible remedies.

SEF does not deny removing Davis from the property, nor does it deny voting her off the board. Since her departure, the foundation has asserted that Davis' removal was (initially) only a temporary (three-month) separation and (subsequently) that she chose to leave because she found ranch life "too tough." A mediation two years ago ended with Davis proposing a settlement of all grievances in return for Davis gaining the title to a piece of the land she had purchased; it was rejected by the SEF board.

Davis and Mitchell placed their properties in the ownership of SEF. A while after Mitchell's death, a subsequent board of directors took control of the foundation. The board then removed Davis from the board. The board claims it was within its rights to remove Davis from the board, but some have questioned whether the board acted appropriately in removing Davis from the land.

Those who say Davis was mistreated by SEF have spoken about the issue, and many of their comments are recounted in this article. SEF has provided brief statements on the matter, along with a referral to its insurance company and an attorney. It also sent messages to at least some on its mailing list advising them not to talk with The Sentinel.

Mitchell's brother, Rodney, feels Mitchell and Davis were both gravely mistreated. "It's absolutely true," he says. "They had left on a trip to Italy and [wrote wills]. Ray's will left his property to the foundation. When he died suddenly, everything went to the foundation. Fisse put in thousands and thousands of dollars and a lot of her time, often 24/7. She put in water, power, everything to make that place perfect." Davis' removal was unconscionable, he considers. He adds that his brother promised him five acres on the ranch, but after Mitchell's death he never felt welcome there.

Davis' attorney, Ron Reynier in Hood River, sees the actions of the current SEF leadership as highly questionable. "They saw a way to get something they wanted, and they could get it only through Fisse," he says. "They have no moral compass. They bit the hand that fed them."

Davis' son, Ben Burford, spent nine summers at the ranch and says he knew the principals there very well. "This situation is very sad," he says of that time. To his sense, he states, "The actions of this group were entirely unacceptable."

Burford feels some in the broader Ekone circle of supporters, many of whom were not first-hand observers of the events in question, have been misled by the current leadership. "It's sad to see good people, many of whom I have known for more 16 years, simply cower," he says.

"My feeling is that Fisse was treated shabbily," says Jonathan Harms, a White Eagle Memorial Preserve trustee. "I only know Fisse's side of the story, but I do find her credible."

What happened

Mitchell and Davis were an inseparable couple in the distant dawn of Ekone Ranch. The two met the State of Washington's qualification of a meretricious relationship, defined as a cohabitation that is marital in nature but not in paper; in such a designation, property (including residences, automobiles, bank accounts, and other assets) is evaluated and divided in equal distribution. In the '90s, Davis became more centrally involved with Ekone, working in a number of different staff positions. At the time Ekone had only two dwellings: the lodge (Mitchell's home) and a dilapidated cabin. Soon thereafter Davis financed the purchase of vast new resources for the ranch: another 480 acres that included two residences and numerous outbuildings; the construction of a 60' x 60' shop building; a bath house; major renovations to the lodge, cabin, and camp kitchen; new energy and water systems; fencing; vehicles; and miscellaneous equipment and furnishings. She also paid some SEF debts and for a settlement of a law suit involving SEF.

"I did this with the implicit understanding that I and my children would always have a home on SEF land," Davis recalls. Trusting in the foundation, she was content not to enact this understanding in binding form.

In 2009, SEF became a 501(c)3 and hired an executive director who has worked in that position ever since. The following year Davis asked the executive director to put SEF's cash reserves ($15,000) into a safe deposit box. According to accounts shown in a string of emails among Davis, SEF's executive director, and the then president of SEF's board, as a result of this request, questions were raised about the fate of the funds.

Davis says she was able to observe how the executive director was conducting business on a day-to-day basis. "[The executive director] assumed more and more power, attempted to change the by-laws to increase the power of the staff and tenants, encouraged some members of the board to resign, and handpicked the replacement members," Davis contends. In 2012, a resident reported that while several residents were paying rent and not being compensated for their work, the friends and family of the executive director were living for free and being paid. Upon request for the financial agreements the executive director had made with each resident, Davis says the executive director refused to comply.

At various times Davis says she reported her several serious concerns to the board, which she contends included matters indicating a lack of complete transparency.

SEF eventually responded through a letter from Ekone residents dated Dec. 6, 2012. The letter stated: "The degree to which Fisse's actions have been divisive and hurtful have become intolerable. These actions have included verbally threatening behavior, emotional abuse, and gross misrepresentation of facts. This has resulted in a loss of trust, safety and goodwill. The time and energy that has been spent discussing and trying to resolve this complex issue has been a detriment to the healthy functioning of the community and organization as a whole... It has been clearly spoken by Fisse that her needs have not been met by this community. We are not responsible for fulfilling those needs especially given her current dissatisfaction and anger towards the community." The letter added it would accept the recommendation from the Good Relations Committee, a sub-group formed by SEF, to require Davis to leave SEF land.

In December 2012 Davis was asked to leave the property she had purchased for the ranch and where she had lived for 14 years; later she was banned entirely from SEF land, though in recent years that ban has softened. In May 2013 she was voted off the board. These actions were taken with only general statements of dissatisfaction; no specific examples of her alleged misconduct were given. According to one report, the action so distressed the then board president, Bill Weiler, he resigned soon after in protest. (Weiler declined to be interviewed for this story.)

Burford was at the board meeting with his mother when she was voted out. He had become more actively involved in the board after Mitchell's death. "At one board meeting [in February 2013] it was very obvious that my mom was singled out and verbally attacked. It was like watching elementary school children surround and intimidate a classmate they didn't like."

Davis asked several times for specifics from the board on their issues with her, Burford adds. "Over many emails, my mother continued to ask the same question: 'From your behavior I understand that you are upset with me, but what have I done?' This question was never answered."

Reaction

After the decision, Shonie Schlotzhauer-then and still SEF's executive director-sent a letter to the Ekone community announcing Davis' removal and advised the maintenance of a "code of silence" on the matter. In response to Schlotzhauer's letter, two of Davis' supporters, Myron Fehr and Ivy Velarde, wrote, "Your code of silence requested in your letter is unacceptable in light of the fact that the Sacred Earth Foundation is a public entity that is engaged in the operation of a land trust. Openness is legally required. The law is clear that a land trust is predicated on transparency, honesty, and trust. In addition, the heading 'To Whom It May Concern' makes this a public document for any interested party to read! Those persons who have a 'concern' for Sacred Earth Foundation may be found far and wide and include persons here in Goldendale and in Klickitat County. You are inviting them all to be part of this process in your heading...In your document accusations are made for which you provide no substantiation. According to you, Fisse created problems and challenges because of her use of the community space. Without the facts, that is an empty accusation that suggests this is a feeling or perception and not based on any truths. Innuendo is not a just cause for us to believe your assertions [against Davis]. Give us the facts or retract the statement. And remember that not liking someone is not just cause for eviction." The letter argued that Scholtzhauer grossly exceeded executive director authority to the point of making and breaking contracts without the board's knowledge. In the end, the letter concluded, "Your document leaves us with a feeling that this whole thing was orchestrated well in advance. We would ask that all documents that precede this letter be made a matter of public record and that we receive copies of them. Our assessment of this letter is that it is clearly one-sided and repeatedly attacks the intention, moral turpitude, and character of Fisse. It feels like slander." Fehr and Velarde declined to be interviewed for this story, though their letter was widely distributed.

An attorney, Dorothy Foster from the Foster Law Group in Seattle, became involved at the request of Davis and another board member. Foster wrote her legal opinion of SEF's doings. "You [Davis] consider yourself a 'whistleblower' (pursuant to the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, as applied to charitable organizations). You feel retaliated against for your efforts at bringing these financial improprieties to light. You feel certain members of the board of directors have attempted to silence you." Addressing the legality of SEF's removal of Davis from the ranch, Foster wrote, "Is it 'legal' for the Community Council [another sub-group of SEF] to evict one of the foundation staff by reason of two individuals 'not feeling safe' or 'not trusting the person'? That is, may the Board of Directors delegate such power to its residential staff and tenants? Perhaps-if the purposes of the foundation included the provision of housing for members of a charitable class. Perhaps, also-if the Foundation were a nonprofit community association, rather than a charitable organization exempt under IRC 501(c)(3)." Foster's point was that neither of the "perhaps" she cited were the case.

"The provision of housing to individuals who are not members of a charitable class is never an exempt purpose under IRC 501(c)(3)," she continued. "The foundation must be compensated either in the form of rent or employee services for all such housing; and the value of housing provided to staff must be exactly commensurate with services provided. Able-bodied employees and tenants are not members of a charitable class. The board simply may not cede its fiduciary duties and powers to a body composed of its staff and tenants." Foster added that the proposed changes in the SEF's documents "would illegally abrogate the authority of the board of directors in many respects. Clearly, the board may not adopt such proposed amendments to its bylaws."

Fallout

An initial response to requests for comment on this story from SEF came from Schlotzhauer, who stated in an email, "Because [Davis] has pursued legal action against Sacred Earth Foundation, we are prevented from speaking further or more publicly about this confidential, internal matter." (In fact, while there has been communication between SEF and Davis' attorney, no legal action has yet been taken.) Pursuing comment, The Sentinel replied, "The affairs of Sacred Earth Foundation are neither confidential nor internal... As a non-profit, SEF's public accountability in every regard is expected and required." There was no response.

Judy Todd, currently president of the SEF board of directors, sent this statement on Oct. 29: "Because of the specific nature of some of the allegations Ms. Davis is making, our legal and non-profit advisers have strongly counseled us to hold this matter in strict confidence. We also have no desire to portray Ms. Davis in a negative light, especially in the media, and do not intend to offer any information so to ensure we avoid that completely. We understand that may make Sacred Earth Foundation and the board of directors look bad in your story. We know that the community will be free to judge as they will, regardless of what we say. We trust that there will be those who understand there is more to the story than what may be represented in your article. We believe we've done our very best in discerning all of the facts and in attempting to find a peaceful resolution. Thank you for the invitation to tell our story; we choose to focus on the good work of the organization and will put our energies to that."

SEF identified as its attorney Peter Smith of the Apex Law Group in Seattle. Asked for comment, he responded, "I am happy to explain why we have chosen not to comment. The long and short of it is, simply, if there is going to be a lawsuit, anything we are saying outside of court that can be cast as an admission can be brought into court. So to control that, we are not going to say anything. It's that simple. You can probably appreciate this: it's not that I have one client here-I do, it's a 501c3-but I've got a whole host of board members, too." Asked when he was retained by SEF, Smith responded, "That is actually confidential for my client. I have been their attorney for a long while, I can tell you that much. They brought me on board for something other than this, for something else. It was a long time ago when we first met."

As this story was being investigated, SEF implied to some people that Davis was behind The Sentinel's article. Emails from two board members state their understanding from SEF's board or executive director that Davis was either writing the story herself or had in some way prompted the newspaper to do a story. In fact, Davis did not ask for or lead The Sentinel to do an investigation or story.

 

Reader Comments
(0)

 
 

Powered by ROAR Online Publication Software from Lions Light Corporation
© Copyright 2019

Rendered 10/02/2019 09:11