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Changes in policy rankle Memorial Day volunteers

May marks the 75th anniversary of the Little Neck-Douglaston Memorial Day Parade, one of the country’s largest, but instead of a celebration there appears to be discontent among the volunteer ranks of the parade committee.

Some members, many of whom have worked on the parade for decades, contend the group’s leader, civic activist Jim Rodgers of Auburndale, is shutting out the Little Neck and Douglaston volunteers, and that they know of no meetings held this year. Prior to this year, the group met monthly.

But Rodgers, who has introduced some policy changes, said the organization of this year’s parade has been smooth and there has been no reason to hold a general meeting. The group’s newly formed executive committee has met, Rodgers added, and no one has been deliberately shut out of the process.

The parade has grown significantly over the past 20 years to become one of the largest in the country, often competing with Chicago for bragging rights as the nation’s biggest Memorial Day parade. Thousands of spectators turn out on Northern Boulevard for the event every year.

Longtime volunteers said they were angered and surprised when they got an application form in the mail asking for their Social Security numbers, employment history and references in order to be a part of the parade committee.

In a recent interview, Rodgers said concerned members had contacted him and new, less intrusive applications were sent out. “Every single one of the people who has issues or concerns called me,” he said. “Others who said they were concerned were not concerned enough to call me.”

Although Rodgers, who took charge of the parade in January 2001, said new applications had been mailed to members, several said this week they had not received them.

In the past, the parade committee was a group of loose-knit volunteers who met every month between January and May, discussing and voting on all aspects of the event, including an arts and essay contest for schoolchildren, an interfaith service and a fund-raising dinner dance.

After last year’s parade, it was discovered that one of the volunteers who was a teacher had pleaded guilty in 1999 to molesting several of his female students, which prompted Rodgers to draw up the new application to weed out undesirable members of the committee.

“This is not an ideal process, but we felt it necessary to have a procedure” to screen applicants even though they are volunteers, Rodgers said.

Now a registered non-profit group, the Little Neck-Douglaston Memorial Day Parade Organization Inc. is headed by an executive committee, which bears “all responsibility and liability” for the parade, Rodgers said. The Parade Organization has planned a golf outing May 10 to attract contributions, which longtime member Ralph Barba said has been well-received.

Charles McBride, a longtime volunteer member, said “as far as I know, none of the changes were ever voted on or approved by the group.”

An executive committee member, who asked not to be named, outlined the root of the conflict by saying Rodgers “had a lot of people who could help, but he has not utilized them.”

Karen Dinegar of Little Neck, a member of the group for eight years, is one of the unutilized. “Who is he accountable to?” Dinegar asked, referring to Rodgers. She said past meetings were open and democratic, with the majority vote determining parade decisions.

“It sounds like he just wants us to do grunt work on parade day and then goodbye,” Dinegar said.

Margit Johnson, who grew up in Douglaston and lives in Whitestone, was also upset.

“Our input doesn’t seem to count for anything,” said the 22-year member. “I haven’t heard anything. I haven’t filled out the form — I guess I’m not welcome.”

Denise Sodaro, a 20-year member who grew up in Douglaston, did not receive an application, which Rodgers and other committee members said was due to a clerical error.

Despite such glitches, Rodgers said the planning is progressing well, and he and other members of the executive committee said they intend to hold a general meeting this week.

Rodgers said he is working to expand the mission of the parade to helping veterans throughout the year, while being financially solvent and efficient. Local libraries are being recruited to help expand the arts and essay contest, he said.

Reach reporter Kathianne Boniello by e-mail at Timesledgr@aol.com or call 229-0300, Ext. 146.

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