By Edwin Crayton/Opinion
In January of this year, I reported that the Natchitoches Community Improvement Foundation (NCIF)—a community foundation that handles over 2 million in funds designated for the people of Natchitoches— had five board members in violation of term limits. After that meeting, one of those members said she would step aside if she was shown that she was in violation. Well, I showed her that documented evidence—a 990 IRS document. Sure enough, she kept her word and did not show up at any more board meetings. She stepped down. That board member, Brenda Milner, did something four others board members seem to find impossible to do. They are still sitting in their seats despite the fact that NCIF bylaws only permit a board member to serve two consecutive 3- year terms. The IRS 990 form I showed Milner, reveals that Leo Walker, Oswald Taylor, Mildred Joseph and Diane Blake Jones have been on the board seven years because they are listed on a 2015 IRS 990 form. It is now 2022.
Ms. Milner acted honorably. It’s too bad the other four haven’t followed her example and stepped aside too. Because they have stubbornly remained in their seats 1 year past their term limits, these board members have denied members of the public an opportunity to serve in seats that should be vacant. Why should the public care? One simple reason: the money NCIF oversees is money won in a settlement with Tennessee Gas in a suit alleging that the company spilled dangerous pcb chemicals into Sibley Lake. Money from the settlement was designated for citizens living in the city of Natchitoches. The money is supposed to be given to the public in the form of grants or scholarships in four areas of economic development, housing, education and recreation. NCIF does give grants and scholarships, but the process is not truly transparent and violating term limits is just one indication of that. The organization is also very overdue on an audit and financial information is not given in written, documented form. Financial data is read verbally. No paper. Also, at meetings, the public is not allowed to comment, until after all decisions have been made by the board. No real public input. In short, it does not feel much like democracy. And yet, this is the people’s money.
The seats are supposed to be open and available to all the people living in the city of Natchitoches. The only eligibility requirements are that a person be at least 17, not be a felon and live inside the city of Natchitoches. But it has not exactly worked out that way. Although there have been elections and some citizens have made it on to the board, because these four board members refuse to step down, all of the seats are not really available to the people of Natchitoches. The organization also has not held an election to open up the process to the public as the bylaws require. Some board members have complained about this. In fact, at the October quarterly meeting, board member Renee Porter asked why there was no election this year. Good question. But the board did not act on his question. Earlier this year, board member Helen Obioha asked Leo Walker to resign from the chairman’s seat and reminded him that he said he would. But Walker refuses to budge. And so, do Taylor, Joseph and Jones. The whole situation brings to mind several questions. Should any community organization that handles funds for the public allow board members to hold on to their seats in violation of the organization’s bylaws? Should settlement money, meant to be distributed to the public be put in a foundation without establishing an oversight/supervision system and process of accountability for that organization? There is no agency overseeing the process. Is that ethical and should it be legal? Whether an agency is a part of government or not, it should be held accountable if it handles funds designated for the public.
At the end of the October meeting, I asked Mr. Walker—who is a minister—if he believed God approved of his and others violating term limits. He said, “I didn’t talk to God.” If he had, I do not believe we would be dealing with term violations at a foundation that has over 2 million in funds for the public.
“Let everything be decently and in order.”—1 Corinthians 14:40