You wouldn't imagine that something as innocuous as a Kansas City Blues Society board election could turn as jagged as a Son House song. But contentious elections have become an unfortunate annual tradition for the KCBS, a nonprofit organization that purports to exist "solely for the purpose of promotion and preservation of various forms of blues music." And when the society convened January 10 at Knuckleheads Saloon, to elect its 2013 board, the knives came out in a hurry.
Most had been sharpened for "Lil" Joe Sherrick. Since his November 2010 election as the group's president, the society — already given to petty infighting — has grown especially discordant. Fourteen members of the board have quit or been removed. Many of the people who took over those board seats, according to KCBS members, are Sherrick's friends or Judy Abraham's friends. Abraham, chairwoman of membership for the KCBS, is also Sherrick's girlfriend. In the past year alone, Blues News, the society's monthly newsletter, has had five different editors.
In his "Letter From the President," in the January 2013 issue of Blues News, Sherrick endorsed specific candidates and pointedly reminded readers that certain other candidates had either walked away from or been voted off the board. Sherrick also mailed personal letters to some members, on KCBS letterhead, endorsing his preferred candidates. (With these notes, he enclosed a pocket-size list for members to bring to the election.)
Sherrick's campaigning angered an already displeased contingent, the most vocal of whom are former board members Karen Baum, Micki Houze and Janet Stephens. They took to the KCBS Facebook group page to challenge Sherrick's ethics. Much bickering ensued. Comments under posts piled up into the hundreds. As the election neared, each day seemed to introduce some further bureaucratic grievance to widen the rift between Sherrick's detractors and his loyalists.
January 10 at Knuckleheads, Danny Powell — the KCBS treasurer, who falls into the pro-Sherrick camp (a "Joe ho," as the opposition calls a member of that group) — served as the host. There were 17 candidates for 11 board spots. Each was given about a minute to make his or her case on the Knuckleheads main stage.
"This has been a down-and-dirty election," said singer-songwriter Sara Elrod, a longtime KCBS member. "For the president to print his choices for the board in the newsletter is just dirty."
Cassandra Houze, the youngest candidate and one of the few people at Knuckleheads that night under the age of 40, took the mic. She told the crowd that she had spent her high school years singing Trampled Under Foot's songs into a hairbrush in her bedroom. She loved KC blues, she said. But, she added, "all this baloney on Facebook is embarrassing the entire Blues Society."
Curt Straub, who served on the KCBS board for eight years before Sherrick relieved him of his duties, detailed the current administration's lack of communication skills. He complained that he had heard no response from the board about artwork for merchandise he was working on, and Straub said Sherrick had cut him out after he asked too many questions at the first planning meeting for the 2012 KC Blues Fest at Kaw Point. He sighed and said, "Joe has his heart in the right place but not his head."
According to the bylaws, KCBS presidents aren't elected by members. Members elect the board, and the board determines who serves in what role. So Sherrick, too, was up for re-election. He wore a lime-green button-up shirt over a black turtleneck and spoke quietly into the mic about the need for the KCBS to continue moving forward. Apart from mentioning a recent meeting with Mayor Sly James, he did not supply much in the way of specifics.