The Windsor Star
8 March 2018
When Mario Pennesi was a kid, he played hockey for the Windsor Minor Hockey Association.
When he had kids, they played for Windsor Minor.
He was a coach and manager.
He was the association’s treasurer for 17 years.
He was named volunteer of the year. He won the Robert (Knobby) Knudsen Award for dedication twice. He was awarded a life membership, the organization’s highest honour, for “very distinctive service.”
Now he’s persona non grata, the second high-profile, longtime volunteer in less than a year turfed from the embattled nonprofit corporation after questioning its board of directors.
The board voted on Jan. 23 to revoke Pennesi’s life membership, citing its constitution and bylaws, which state a lifetime membership can be revoked if the member brings “disrepute” to the association.
The vote came less than two weeks after Pennesi emailed association lawyer David McNevin to express concern that players’parents can’t vote at the annual meeting and board members don’t have term limits.
On Feb. 25, Pennesi emailed the board proposed amendments to its constitution, including allowing parents to vote, instituting board term limits and ending free hockey registration for board members’ kids.
The next day, in what reads like a shunning, the board voted to inform him that “no further correspondence or means of communication will be accepted from you and that there will be no replies from any WMHA board member to any future correspondence or communication from you.”
The board notified Pennesi of the votes on Monday.
“It’s obvious what they’re doing,” he said. “They’re trying to silence me.
“How does a guy with all these awards bring disrepute to Windsor Minor?” he asked.
Pennesi sat on a special committee to address the controversy when president Dean Lapierre called Canadian women who marched in the Women’s March on Washington “dumb bitches” on social media last year. But he left the board in July.
“I just didn’t feel my voice was being heard anymore,” he said. “It was time to pack it in, if this was the way they wanted to run their organization.”
Yet he continued to push for change last fall.
He hasn’t been told what he did to bring disrepute to the organization. He hasn’t been given a chance to defend himself, either.
Lapierre refused to speak to the Windsor Star.
“No comment, thank you,” he said before hanging up.
“This removal of Mario says a lot about where they’re putting their efforts, and that’s just to squash any dissent,” said Trish McAuliffe, a retired national human rights investigator and trainer for Unifor recruited by former Local 444 president Dino Chiodo to work with Windsor Minor.
Mike Dugal, a board member for 30 years and a former president, had his position eliminated last March after criticizing Lapierre for his comments about women.
“It’s quite clear that person after person has been dismissed from the organization, (people) that seem to want to see change … attitudinal change,” said McAuliffe, speaking out of frustration despite her role as a mediator. “People feel, ‘Hey, I’m OK Jack,’when there is a larger group outside saying, ‘No, that’s not quite the fact here.’You need to have an open mind around adjusting some of those attitudes, and obviously that’s not going to happen.
“It’s at the point of no return,” she said. “They’re on their own path, and it pleases them.”
Lapierre apologized for his comments and participated in a program called Respect in Sport. But Local 444 wanted the board to do more. It said it would pay the association the $500 in sponsorship it had withdrawn after Lapierre’s comments if the board worked with McAuliffe to further identify and address problems. The union offered to pay for McAuliffe.
The board’s executive met with her once last summer. The board had attended a presentation on social media ethics, established a new program about it, and updated its code of conduct. Still, McAuliffe wrote in her report that “a common statement heard (in the community is that) ‘nothing changes’and ‘the association doesn’t take these matters seriously.’” She recommended addressing the way the association governs itself, its culture, the need for transparency and recourse for complaints. The board responded, McAuliffe noted in her report, that it “may be too busy.” It hasn’t met with her again.
Unifor and two sports groups, Club 240 and the Windsor Choristers Athletic Club, are still withholding a total of $4,500 in sponsorships.
“It certainly looks like perhaps some in the organization are somewhat satisfied they’ve weathered the storm,” said labour council president Brian Hogan. He will recommend that the council’s unions encourage their hockey parents to “ask tough questions.”
Local 444 president James Stewart said he’ll raise the issue at his next board meeting.
“This issue can’t be ignored or forgotten about,” he said. “Sweeping it under the rug is not an option.”
Pennesi last month convened a group of well-known community members, including cancer researcher and former Windsor Minor parent Lisa Porter, University of Windsor kinesiology professor Marge Holman, women’s march organizer Pat Papadeas, Hogan and Dugal, to review the association’s constitution and bylaws. Three parents whose kids play for Windsor Minor are also on the committee, but don’t want to be identified.
“Every parent I’ve talked to, they don’t want to make waves,” said one of the parents whose son plays on a travel team. “It’s a big issue. It really is. If you say something, you’re done.”
At least three travel team managers are reported to have forwarded the group’s proposed amendments to their players’ parents.
The association hasn’t responded.
The group wants parents to be able vote at the association’s annual meeting. A list of voters is compiled by March 1 every year and posted on the association website. Only board members, team officials whose names are submitted by conveners and “special and earned positions” determined by the board are eligible to be on the list.
“Parents are the sole stakeholders in the organization,” said Porter. “They deserve a say.”
The association’s president and vice-president, who serve two-year terms, should also be limited to two terms and other directors to three terms, the group says. It also wants more people eligible to run for top positions, including president. Currently, only the 11 executive members are eligible.
Although there are new board members to replace at least eight people who left after Lapierre’s comments, Lapierre, who has been president for 19 years, was acclaimed to the position again after being suspended for months.
Holman called the organization “a bit stale.”
“My apprehension is that it’s the same people, so you get the same type of response,” she said. “They become territorial and protective of their own space.”
Said Pennesi: “It’s about openness, transparency and accountability.”
Another proposed amendment would end free registration for board members. Those who have served on the board for two years are entitled to one free registration, worth about $500. If they don’t have kids who play hockey, they’re entitled to the money. It costs the association $5,000 to $10,000 a year, said Pennesi, who received at least seven years of free registrations for his kids.
McAuliffe and others at the meeting last summer told the association’s executive, “Your organization doesn’t run like an organization should run,” said Sexual Assault Crisis Centre director Lydia Fiorini, part of the group working with the association.
“We talk about Dean being guilty for his inappropriateness,” she said. “The board is just as guilty for not making changes. This board has been given ample time to make some significant differences and ample resources and have chosen not to.”
Said McAuliffe, “I see good governance as a responsibility to the community.”
If the association won’t change, “perhaps it needs something more heavy-handed,” she said.
She and others are calling for the Ontario Minor Hockey Association, the umbrella group for more than 200 minor hockey groups in Ontario, to intervene.
But the OMHA is refusing. “All checks on corporate governance as it relates to Windsor Minor Hockey Association’s board is with the association’s own members who have certain statutory powers under the Ontario Corporations Act to investigate and/or requisition membership meetings to challenge boards on their actions between annual meetings,” executive director Ian Taylor said in an emailed statement.
McAuliffe also suggested asking the Ontario Human Rights Commission to review what has happened, beginning with Lapierre’s comments.
Meanwhile, the group, which has started a Facebook page, Sport Matters, and a Twitter feed, is encouraging players’parents to attend the annual meeting on April 3.
“We’re hopeful that if parents go to the meeting, they’ll demand, as members and as the people who are paying for that organization’s existence, that they have the right to vote,” said Holman.