Longtime Sterling Municipal Band leaders fired

September 21, 2018

STERLING – The Sterling Municipal Band Commission has cut ties with two longtime band leaders, saying it wants to move in a new direction as the band approaches its 100th anniversary.

Jon James, the band’s conductor for 15 years, and his wife, Cathy James, the band’s travel manager, learned they would be terminated at the commission’s Sept. 10 meeting. Cathy James, a clarinetist, started playing with the band in 1986, and her husband had been the band’s first-chair trumpet players for 10 years prior to being named conductor.

The commission had been tasked with setting goals to ensure the viability of the band in the future, Mayor Skip Lee said. One of the most important objectives on the list is appealing to a younger demographic. Related to that goal is a desire for more musical diversity.

“This decision wasn’t a sudden one – discussions had been ongoing for quite a while,” Lee said. “This wasn’t an indictment on the job they had done, it was just decided that this team wasn’t the one to take the band where it wanted to go.”

Cathy James is still manager of the Dixon Municipal Band and she and her husband play in the band. Both were told they could play in the Sterling band if they waited for 1 year to return, in order to ensure a smooth leadership transition.

The Jameses said they received regular evaluations in which they were given areas in which to improve, but they didn’t expect to be let go.

“I was told that they didn’t feel I was supporting them as a commission and that I needed to learn to trust them,” Cathy James said.

The mayor doesn’t attend the commission meetings. He appointed his brother, Allen Lee, to the panel on July 1, 2014. Commissioners serve staggered 5-year terms.

Cathy James contends that their working relationship with the city changed dramatically when Allen Lee and Gonzalo Reyes joined the commission.

“They turned something fun into something very stressful,” Cathy James said. “We do what we do because we’re musicians and we love to play. I busted my rear to bring in top-tier musicians, and we put on great shows.”

Jon James and Patrick Sheehan, who was fired as business manager in November 2017, and then recently relieved of his announcer and musician duties, said they were told that the band’s administration had no business acumen.

“No other commission operates this way – they are heavy-handed,” Sheehan said.

Jon James also said he was disappointed in the way things were handled.

“I went to the bandshell after the last show to clean up on Aug. 17, and I couldn’t get in because the locks had been changed,” James said. “I wasn’t even fired until Sept. 10. I checked around and no one seemed to know anything about it except the commissioner who had it done.”

The changing of the locks appeared on the Sept. 10 commission agenda.

The five-person commission is appointed by the mayor with the approval of the City Council. Most of its revenue comes from a property tax levy, which brought in $56,546 in fiscal year 2016-2017. The band also received $33,000 in donations that year which accounts for most of about a $99,000 annual budget.

Jon James received $700 a month for his band work, while Cathy James made $200 a month.

The band marked its 90th anniversary this year. Sterling residents voted for a municipal band tax in 1928.

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