No vote: Prism pulls bylaws, keeps Boyce

Following several months of tension, late-night meetings, and hurt feelings all around the Prism Coffeehouse, the jury is in: There will be no new elections, and long-time artistic director Fred Boyce will likely keep his position.

The outcome follows a surprise bylaw discovery and more mighty winds from Boyce.

While it's not quite the outcome some expected following some very public pleas for volunteer elections, Prism Board Chair Joe Ayers calls the process "a positive exercise in public discourse."

That discourse began back in January on a less positive note when Jim Quarles and his wife, Gloria, resigned from the Prism board because they believed that the nonprofit was not following its own bylaws. Quarles, who had been appointed to the board by Boyce, soon learned that there was another coffeehouse concern: Boyce's temper.

In a lengthy phone message following the Quarles' resignation, Boyce screamed obscenities and insulted Quarles. And Quarles wasn't the only one to feel Boyce's wrath.

Phyllis White, a WTJU DJ and former Prism volunteer, says Boyce once followed her out to her car and, while screaming at her, hit her car window.

Others had similar tales.

Boyce and his domestic partner, Kenyon Hunter, who serves on the Prism's board as treasurer, have declined to comment for the Hook's stories. But at a series of open meetings, Boyce has aired his feelings.

Boyce concluded the three-hour April 20 meeting by reading from an inspirational email and zinging barbs at those he claimed had taken advantage of the Prism– even a child who allegedly sold Girl Scout cookies on premises.

Quarles says he, too, was targeted during that speech, but both he and father of the Girl Scout, Pete Vigour, declined further comment, citing a "wish to move on."

At the next meeting, on May 11, Prism board members including Joe Ayers and Kenyon Hunter delivered a shocker: The 1992 bylaws– the ones providing for volunteer-based elections– had never been legally filed with the state and were therefore, the board members claimed, invalid.

Two lawyers offered to see if the controlling 1983 bylaws could still offer volunteers a vote. Steven Rosenfield, author of the original bylaws, and Alexis Crow, who represented the Prism, devised a plan: Volunteers would nominate a slate of three to nine persons, and the existing board of directors could then vote to accept the slate. Fred Boyce would continue his services as a paid artistic director but would step down from the board.

But current board members and their supporters balked. The Prism will remain a self-perpetuating board.

Attorney Rosenfield was disappointed.

"If they were looking to open up the process," he says, "it seems they could have done that by bringing onto the board a good number of people."

Crow did not return the Hook's calls by deadline.

But board member Ayers says there really wasn't any other way– and it's a "good thing," he claims. "We've gone back to the founding of the 501 (c) 3 corporation," he says. "It had gotten away from people."

Warm feelings were not in evidence as the May 11 meeting came to a close sometime after 11pm. According to numerous sources, Boyce, apparently enraged by his critics, stood outside the Prism's southern entrance and hurled epithets at several people leaving the property.

"F*** you," he allegedly screamed repeatedly at select passersby. "I am the Prism."

Even Ayers acknowledges that Boyce's temper cannot go unchecked.

"He's been told directly," says Ayers, "that such outbursts are not acceptable. We're taking steps to deal with that."

But, Ayers says, no one has questioned Boyce's talent in booking and promoting. "Not even his bitterest critic," says Ayers, "wants him removed from his post."

Westminster Presbyterian Church, which has provided subsidized rent to the folk venue at 214 Rugby Road for nearly four decades, has, for the most part, stayed out of the dust-up.

"Westminster's founding mission was to minister to the University community," Anne Hedelt, chair of the Church's Prism Building Committee, wrote in an email to the Hook. "For the past three decades, the Prism Coffeehouse has done that by providing a wholesome, alcohol-free entertainment venue in the heart of the Rugby Road neighborhood. Our main concern in this matter is to work with the Prism leadership to ensure that it continues to serve that purpose."

On May 18– the night elections were to have taken place– Boyce, despite being in the building, was nowhere to be found during the meeting. From the 150 in attendance at the April 20 meeting, the number had dwindled to approximately 30. Of those present, former board member Kathleen Hogan did much of the talking.

"The people that are doing all the work," she said from her front-row seat, "are Fred and Kenyon."

As for Boyce's temper, Hogan shrugged sympathetically during an intermission. "He's a goofy funny guy to me. I know he goes off; I know he's got problems."

Local real estate agent Aer Stephen also spoke up in Boyce's defense. "I recommend that Fred Boyce should be paid," said Stephen, "lots!"

But the sentiment that opened the divide continues.

Colin Ramirez, a Prism volunteer, cited the recent changing of the Prism's locks that caused several people to be unexpectedly locked out of a jam session. "It all comes down to who holds the key to the building," he says.

Ramirez adds that if enough people continue to feel alienated by Boyce's temper, they might start a new– and competing– music hall.

They wouldn't be alone.

In the past two years, such venues as Gravity Lounge, Acoustic Charlottesville, and Twisted Branch Tea Room have emerged to bolster the local acoustic scene. But while Gravity Lounge recently hosted Monkees star Peter Tork, who played the Prism in 1999, Gravity owner Bill Baldwin downplays any competition.

"The only competition among music venues in town," he says, "is that there's only a limited number of audience members on any given night, and there's lots to choose from."

And, Baldwin says, it would be hard to compete with the Prism anyway.

"I think it's probably the premier folk venue in the region," he explains.

John Wheeler, a lawyer who volunteered two decades ago and who has attended recent meetings to help decipher the legalities, says he remains optimistic about the Prism's future– despite the nix of the volunteer vote.

Wheeler wants the Prism to become a "membership" organization, the nonprofit equivalent of a publicly held stock corporation, instead of having a self-perpetuating board.

If the current board were to appoint several new members and then rewrite the articles of incorporation to change the Prism into such a membership organization, "it would be great," he says. "It could make everybody happy."

Chairman Ayers says he has no idea how the situation will turn out– or what the board will decide to do by the June 30 deadline it has set for itself to select new board members. But he says no one should assume the worst.

"It's all completely fluid," he explains. "The process will continue." And for those who fear that Boyce has lifetime membership on the board, Ayers has a few words.

"Fred can't continue in the current manner of operating," says Ayers. "It has to change."

The future of the Prism is still uncertain.