By Edwin Crayton/Opinion
As you probably know, because of the Coronavirus, most organizations that serve the public are trying creative alternatives to the conventional meeting in order to keep the public in the loop. Some hold video conferences. Others give the public call in numbers and allow them to attend meetings by phone. At the very least, they put up a notice on their usual meeting location site telling whether they are meeting or not and offer further instructions on how to do business with them, or list contact numbers. As far as I could determine, for their last quarterly meeting, the Natchitoches Community Improvement Foundation (NCIF) did none of the above. Yet, you would expect them to do at least the minimum, as they have been given the responsibility of distributing 1.8 million in funds designated for the citizens of Natchitoches in the form of grants and scholarships. But recently, when I tried to find out whether and where they were having their July quarterly meeting, it was a real struggle and expedition to get any kind of response from NCIF. The simple truth is, when it comes to accessing meetings, I have found it has kind of always been this way. Even before Covid 19 hit town.
Here is specifically what I mean. In June, I began to try to find out if there was going to be a July meeting and if so, where it would be held. It is supposed to be advertised in the paper two weeks in advance. For a month I searched the local paper but there was nothing in it about any meeting. So I mailed a letter to the secretary, Mildred Joseph asking if the foundation was meeting and if so when and where. I got no response. At a store, I saw Board Member Brenda Milner and asked where the meeting would be held. She said she did not know anything. Another day, I saw NCIF Treasurer Oswald Taylor and put the question to him. He said there would be no meeting and vaguely shared that he did not want to do an online meeting. But even if they were not going to meet shouldn’t a notice have been put out saying so? Their bylaws require NCIF to notify the public about quarterly meetings in advance. So shouldn’t notices about meeting cancellations be part of that?
Then, something happened that I believe serves as the ideal illustration of what is wrong. I found the Natchitoches Community Improvement website online. I went on the homepage it had a heading about meetings alright, but they were all for 2019 only. Yes, 2019. No listings at all for 2020. Check out the visual of screen shot accompanying this article, (sorry the typeface is very light and hard to read). The dateline in the corner of the computer screen reads “9/8, 2020”). But wait, not only that, the site did not even tell where the meetings were to be held. It just listed date and month of each meeting and again, it was for last year. In other words, if you went on their site this year to find a meeting date for this year, you got only meeting days, with no locations for last year. And even then, it said at the end, TBD (to be determined). Implications are that even last year, they did not post the locations of the meetings. Wow. Hey, it’s simple: If you are not having public meetings, tell the public.
How then can the public attend public meetings when they cannot find out where they are being held? I showed the screen shot to a few random citizens. I asked what their impressions would be if they logged on and saw it. One woman said, “Doesn’t sound like they want you to attend”. A young man then pointed to the “TBD” noting that even last year, they never posted locations. A second woman mentioned it looked like they need to update their website and shared it would not give her confidence in them.
Perhaps, if NCIF made it easier for the public to attend meetings, they would not be in a position where $19,500 is still unaccounted for. I am referring to a 2014 by an auditor which reported $19,500 in money managed by NCIF as being unaccounted for. To this day, the foundation has not documented or explained what happened to that money. NCIF is a foundation that was court ordered by a District Judge to distribute money awarded in a settlement after Tennessee Gas spilled pcbs in Sibley Lake in the late 1990s. The funds are to be given to citizens in Natchitoches in the form of grants and scholarships in the areas of education, recreation, housing and economic development. The foundation has 1.8 million in money designated for the public. It has been involved in both controversy and lawsuits. How they manage meetings and advertise or rather, do not advertise them maybe gives you a clue as to why.
The Natchitoches Community Improvement Foundation board members are: Oswald Taylor, Mildred Joseph, Gwen Antee Hardison-Davis, Shaniqua Hoover, Brenda Milner, Gwendolyn Williams, Edwin Deon Powe, Renee Porter, DeMarquis Hamilton (the following are sitting on the board although according to NCIF bylaws, their term limits are up: Leo Walker, Diane Blake Jones).
Visit them at: http://natchitochescommunityimprovementfoundation.org/grants