By Edwin Crayton/Opinion
On January 17, 2023, at the first quarterly meeting of the Natchitoches Community Improvement Foundation (NCIF), Board Member Gwendolyn Williams prayed that everything at the meeting would be done “decently and in order”. Well, the events of the evening were neither. For starters, the meeting was chaired by Leo Walker whose term expired a year and a month ago. He is now entering his second year of violation. This despite the fact that Mr. Walker said he would resign this year. If that sounds familiar, perhaps it is because he did the same thing in 2022. In October of 2021 he promised to resign in 2022 and did not. He is one of four who have been on the board since at least 2015 (see IRS 990 form visual), even though the bylaws say that no one can serve more than six consecutive years (See bylaws visual, Section 3.3). The events of the meeting were recorded by “Acting Secretary” Mildred Joseph, who is likewise entering her second year of term limits violations as well. The other two members who were on the board in 2015 are Oswald Taylor and Diane Blake Jones. However, they were both absent from the January 17th meeting, and so it is unclear as this goes to press whether they have stepped down, or just could not make the meeting.
The Natchitoches Community Improvement Foundation is a nonprofit, volunteer run organization that was set up to distribute money from a settlement with Tennessee Gas after the company was sued for a pcb spill into Sibley Lake. The court approved a plan and bylaws that designated that the money from the settlement be given to citizens of Natchitoches, living inside the city. The foundation does this by awarding grants and scholarships to citizens who apply and meet the criteria designated. In other words, the money is meant for you. But getting it into the hands of the people has often been a battle. The foundation has been sued at least a couple of times by citizens who have complained about the lack of transparency and the way money has been awarded or not awarded. In 2014, after a court battle between NCIF and the team of Robert Jackson Sr. and John Winston, the District Court signed off on bylaws which opened up the process quite a bit more to citizens and placed term limits on those serving on the board. Sounds good. But NCIF simply followed the bylaws when they wanted to and didn’t follow them when they didn’t. Unfortunately, there were no penalties, nor was any oversight group appointed to hold them accountable for what would happen if they did not comply. So, guess what? When the mood hits them, they do not comply. That is why Walker and company are still in their seats going on two years over term limits.
At that January 17, 2023 meeting, they voted to give away $69,000 to The Henry O Flipper Foundation, an organization headed by a former NCIF board member Vincent Cofield. Cofield is organizing a group that is trying to build housing and is looking for matching funds. Nothing wrong with that of course. But in this case and others, these funds are being handled and given away by board members who are not authorized according to the bylaws.
Take a look at the agenda that accompanies this article (see agenda visual). Notice something missing? Nathan Wilson, reporter for the Natchitoches Times was there and he pointed out that there was no treasurer’s report on the agenda and asked why. Walker said it was because the Treasurer Oswald Taylor was not there. Excuse me but why couldn’t Mr. Taylor send the report along anyway? It is of course understandable if he could not make the meeting but the treasurer’s report should be documented on paper so you can read it in the treasurer’s absence, right? At least that has been my experience in attending meetings of other community groups. But in the case of NCIF, curiously, there are no written treasurer’s reports, usually or about 99% of the time. To make matters worse (and more confusing), Mr. Taylor too will also be over his term limit by two years if he does show up at a meeting this year. But I hope he will do as Brenda Milner did. When told she was over her term limit last year, she graciously stepped down. What that means is that she is now eligible to return because the bylaws only require the “expired” members to sit out 1 year. That is supposed to be done by election in which the public gets to run and nominate people, according to the bylaws. Of course, this group doesn’t always do what the bylaws say they should.
Mid-meeting, suddenly, the board broke into an “executive session” and asked all members of the public to leave the room. The session took at least 30 minutes. (You learn to expect the unexpected at NCIF meetings.) So much for the “orderly” part of that prayer that Mrs. Williams prayed. When we citizens were allowed to return to the meeting, the board spent about 20 minutes talking to Mr. Cofield. Then, one of the board members made a motion to adjourn. The board voted to adjourn. After waiting half an hour to rejoin the meeting, this truly irritated me. I mentioned to Walker and the board that they had talked for about two hours and that the public deserved to have time to ask questions. Typically, they allow the public to ask questions at the very end of the meeting (see agenda visual). Yes, that means the public has little to no input during the meeting as decisions are being made—unless they can somehow manage to interrupt unofficially. (And that did happen that evening a few times.) However, despite the fact that the board had adjourned, Walker agreed to let me ask questions. I asked him if I could ask four questions. He let me proceed. I reminded him of the prayer Mrs. Williams prayed, mentioning that she had prayed that “everything be done decently in order.” I asked Walker if he believes God thinks that board members being two years over their term limit is decent and in order? Before he could answer, Board Member Renee Porter interrupted and said, “Let’s keep God out of this.” I asked why? And I reminded him that as a member of the public, I had a right to speak without being edited. (By the way, if they hadn’t “Kept God out of it” I doubt we would be dealing with people being over their term limits by two years.)
The board ended the meeting. I did not get to ask my other questions. But they were the following: Why didn’t the treasurer send his report so someone else on the board could present it? This is the second straight meeting with no treasurer’s report and they only meet four times a year. That’s several months without giving financial information to members of the public. I was also going to also ask when the required audit would occur? It’s way overdue. I was going to also ask about the elections—when will they take place. I noticed, the meeting was at the point on the agenda where the members were supposed to talk about elections, when someone moved to adjourn. That’s almost too convenient (see agenda visual).
Dear NCIF: Praying to God to make your decisions “decent and in order: is a good thing. But remember, you also have to listen to his responses. May I make two suggestions that—in addition to prayer—will truly will make things decent and in order?
1)Adhere to your bylaws. Especially the section about term limits.
2) Get those board members with expired terms off the board, just as your bylaws say you are supposed to. Believe it or not, I pray too. And I believe that God would certainly find that decent and in order.
“Let all things be done decently and in order.”-1 Corinthians 14:40
The next quarterly NCIF meeting should be Tuesday, April 11, usually at 7pm at First Baptist Amulet. The meeting is open to the public (consult the local paper to verify as things change.)
Your elected official for District 31: State Senator Louie Bernard, Office: Natchitoches