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June 23, 2004

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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Wednesday, June 23, 2004

War of the mommies War of the mommies (June 23, 2004)

Mothers club split by political in-fighting

by Alexandria Rocha

Although mother's clubs evoke images of field trips to farms, finger painting and discussions on teething toys, leaders of the Mothers Club of Palo Alto and Menlo Park are engaged in a civil war that makes the debate over breast feeding look tame.

Today's Bay Area mother's clubs, once homegrown groups created so mothers of similar-aged children could set up play-dates with other toddlers, have become so popular they operate with a slew of vice presidents in charge of such units as marketing and strategic partnerships. The clubs have elaborate Web sites and e-mail list groups and have even become non-profits to receive discounts on reservations and postage.

The Palo Alto and Menlo Park club has enough members to fill a high school -- 1500. And like any high school, the different sub-groups don't necessarily get along.

Throughout the last year, dozens of members have been entangled in hostilities with the club's current three-person board, which includes Carina Rossner, the club's current president, treasurer Mimi Leary and secretary Angie Demers. The group, which has shuffled out into a sub-club called Concerned Members, has accused the board of holding secret meetings, delaying elections and monitoring and censoring the e-mail list groups.

It has become so contentious that one member said, "The Mother's Club has been hijacked."

Though Concerned Members said their frustrations have lasted more than a year, when the current board took office, the battle came to a head when elections scheduled for May were delayed.

The club scheduled the elections because the current board members' terms were set to expire. As election day approached, however, the board said it did not know how to legally conduct the process and delayed it..

But Concerned Members said the case is far different. Elections were delayed when Rossner refused to step down after she was asked to take a backseat due to her controlling manner, they claim.

Concerned Members have criticized Rossner's leadership tactics, saying the board makes important decisions at secret meetings -- such as delaying elections or adopting nonprofit status -- and controls and censors the club's largest form of communication, the e-mail list groups.

A three-page list of guidelines for participating in the e-mail group states the current three board members can put members on "moderated" status where communications are reviewed prior to posting. A member will be placed on a "moderated" status if a posting is deemed inappropriate, attacks someone personally or includes religious or political statements.

"The list moderator lurks and watches for postings that violate the guidelines," Rossner said.

Rossner said it's common to have guidelines for e-mail lists. When the main list was first created in 1999, she said members had basic questions concerning such issues as dealing with long-chain letters or posting messages about political and religious beliefs.

Though she was vague about what exactly was posted, Rossner said the guidelines were recently reinforced when someone personally attacked another member on the e-mail list.

Another member, who wished to remain anonymous, said moderating e-mail is senseless. She said group members do not flame one another and the most controversial discussion has been about apple juice.

While those at the top struggle to find balance, the rest of the club's 1,500 members continue to hold playgroups for their children, help each other find quality nannies and plumbers, and attend regular parent outings.

"At the end of the day, none of us want any of this to happen. Our mission is essentially to create a supportive environment for parents of children under 5," said Todd Berkowitz, the club's vice president of marketing and strategic partnerships.

The club is now set to hold elections July 13. Rossner said the club's 1,500 members will each receive a mail-in ballot within 10 days of the election, which will provide bios of the 11 nominees, including Rossner.

Members will be asked to vote for seven nominees.

The club has become so divided that a separate list of nominees created by Concerned Members will also be presented to members for the July election. Since one of the group's main concerns is that the majority of the club's membership does not have a say in the election process, they plan to hold playgroups to introduce their set of nominees.

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