A contingent of the 4,000-member American Institute of Architects Chicago chapter seeking reinstatement of ousted Executive Vice President Zurich Esposito have gained enough support for a Sept. 25 chapter meeting via Zoom to vote on the issue.
But the chapter's board of directors, who terminated Esposito in August in a one-sentence statement, say that any meeting vote taken will be advisory only, and that they do not intend to rehire the 14-plus-year executive.
The board said in an e-mail to all members that Illinois law prevents it from making hiring decisions based on a full membership vote. The mechanism to call a member meeting has never been used previously in 50 years of AIA Chicago's existence under its current bylaws.
"Personnel decisions are the province of the board; chapter bylaws do not empower the membership to take a vote on personnel decisions," AIA Chicago Board President April Hughes wrote in an e-mail to Mark Schmieding, a 25-year chapter member and organizer of the Change.org petition to reinstate Esposito, which now has more than 800 signatures. "The vote, if any, at this meeting will be a vote to ask the board to reconsider its decision in light of the discussion," she noted.
Members pushing for Esposito's return say that if he is not rehired, they will override any action of the board that prevents a vote to reinstate him and, eventually, will begin to call for votes to remove board directors.
"AIA is a membership organization and our bylaws provide the opportunity for members to address the organization and their peers by calling a general meeting," says Schmieding, director of digital practice at Chicago-based Goettsch Partners and a 2019 inductee into the AIA College of Fellows. "For me, the right to discuss and influence the direction of our chapter is an essential right and privilege for members."
Many chapter members who signed the petition are Fellows and include a number of well-known Chicago architects who are firm owners and internationally recognized such as Carol Ross Barney, Jim Goettsch, Margaret McCurry, Helmut Jahn and Dirk Lohan.
Esposito has hired an attorney but will not comment beyond a previously released statement that he is "humbled by the overwhelming support of the Chicago design community I’ve served for the past 14 years."
Hughes and incoming AIA Chicago President Jessica Figenholtz chose not to comment for this article beyond confirming that the Sept. 25 meeting was scheduled.
A tweet sent by chapter member and Latent Design Founding Principal Katherine Darnstadt, whose wording is disputed and that was quickly deleted, was reported by Crain's Chicago Business as the original source of tension between Esposito and Hughes.
According to the report, the two disagreed about who should ask Darnstadt—and how firmly—to delete the tweet. After that, attorneys for the board investigated Esposito and the AIA Chicago workplace. No report has been shared with members or made public from the investigation.
Patricia Saldana Natke, the board's treasurer, stepped down from the board shortly before Epsosito was terminated August 13. Chapter financial manager Kathy Jessen resigned in protest over his removal shortly after the move by the board. Darnstadt says the tweet was not what caused Esposito's removal.
"The purpose of the meeting [we have called for] is to provide the forum for the distribution of information, discussion and the resolution of this sad situation," Ross Barney says. "The membership must believe and trust that the actions of the board are fair and ethical. Zurich Esposito deserves fair consideration and treatment, especially in light of his long and successful tenure. Until the board’s shocking emails, most members regarded him as one of our important assets, not a liability."
AIA's national organization in Washington, DC, has not responded to requests for comment about the dispute.
In addition to seeking transparency about Esposito's removal, petition signatories also want more board diversity. They say the current board consists of members all under age 50 who control the nominating process for new directors, which has prevented many older members from serving, including those who have gone through the process of becoming AIA Fellows.
"It's funny, I never think of myself as old," says Schmieding who is 56. "By sort of discriminating against people over 50, you're actually leaving out almost half of the members of the chapter and the most active people able to ... financially support [it] and who know how to handle decisions that require transparency and professionalism."