Lee Fox says the organization she founded fired her.
She sent out a news release Thursday, May 9, announcing the board of Save Our Seabirds terminated her employment.
“The board fired me,” Fox said in the statement. “They are hijacking the organization that I built over the years by hard work … They threw me out without just cause and want to keep the reputation and goodwill of SOS for themselves.”
But David Pilston, CEO of SOS, and Robert Gaglio, president of the organization’s board, deny Fox was fired.
They insist they offered to extend Fox’s employment with SOS under terms she refused to accept.
Fox agrees she met with Pilston and Gaglio April 23 and received a contract agreement to extend her employment by one year, including her salary of approximately $28,000.
But, as part of the agreement, her operations would be based out of her smaller facility at her Wimauma home. Fox rejected that agreement, along with a second offer, before sending out the release announcing her termination.
“She wasn’t fired, essentially,” Gaglio said. “She chose not to take employment under terms the board unanimously decided were appropriate.”
Fox began doing volunteer bird-rescue work in 1987 and founded SOS in 1990. She operated a facility in St. Petersburg and, later, out of her home in Wimauma before securing a lease from the city of Sarasota in 2008 for the vacant former Pelican Man’s Bird Sanctuary.
The City Island facility opened to the public Nov. 1, 2008, with approximately 50 birds and two paid employees. Today, the organization has approximately 250 birds, 15 paid staffers and 100 volunteers.
But Fox and the board, including Pilston, whom the board hired last summer, apparently disagreed on a number of issues over the past year.
Fox says the board limited her rescue work and accuses the board of departing from SOS’ original mission.
“There’s a big hole in wildlife rehab right now, whether you’re here or in Sarasota,” Fox said from her Wimauma home. “Unfortunately, the birds are the ones that are suffering.”
The void in bird care was exacerbated earlier this year in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties when the Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary in Indian Rocks Beach closed, according to Pilston, and the board and Fox disagreed on how much to expand.
“There are other organizations that have gone out of business because they’ve overextended themselves,” he said.
The offer the board extended to Fox would have allowed her to care for some of those birds in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties out of her Wimauma facility using SOS funds.
“She would no longer have had an office here, but she was never barred from coming here,” Pilston said.
Both Gaglio and Pilston described an organization that has expanded over the past year. Visitors used to think it was an exhibit of Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium, he said. Today, it’s a destination for school field trips and visitors. This year, SOS will have three college interns — chosen from an initial pool of 50.
“This isn’t the same organization that existed on the Wimauma property,” Gaglio said. “SOS as it exists today is a culmination not just of Lee Fox but supporters, donors, volunteers and staff who have provided SOS with what it is today.”
The next chapter
In her statement, Fox wrote that the board changed the basic objective of SOS.
“ … Now, it looks like only about 5% of their activity will be directed toward physically helping birds,” she wrote.
But Pilston insists the mission is clear.
“The mission of Save Our Seabirds has not changed,” he wrote in an email to the Longboat Observer. “We have a wonderful team of talented hospital technicians and dedicated volunteers in place to ensure that we continue to fulfill our mission of rescuing, rehabilitating and releasing injured birds, while educating the public about nature and environmental sustainability.”
Fox, too, plans to continue with her mission. She plans to continue caring for sick and injured birds out of Wimauma and intends to build relationships with other local organizations.
Fox hasn’t decided whether to challenge her separation from SOS.
“That remains to be seen,” she said. “I didn’t get as far as I did by giving up, let’s just put it that way.”