By Edwin Crayton/Opinion
If you should ever find yourself sitting in a board meeting that is 42 minutes late in starting and you learn that it is because the board members are waiting for a chairman who is 2 years over his or her term limit, that is a pretty good indication that you are in a board meeting of a dysfunctional organization.
You have my sympathy. I found myself in such a position on the swelteringly hot night of Tuesday, July 11. But the events that took place in the meeting irritated me more than the suffocating heat. Here is why:
As I’ve recently written in this column, Leo Walker is two years over his term limit as chairman of the Natchitoches Community Improvement Foundation (NCIF). This is a community foundation that distributes 2 million dollars that has resulted from or has its roots in a settlement involving the spill of dangerous PCBs into Sibley Lake. Tennessee Gas, the defendant, settled and the money from that settlement was earmarked to be given to citizens in Natchitoches in the form of grants, scholarships, economic development and recreational programs. So basically, this money is designated to go to you, the public. Members of the public are allowed to sit on the board through a nomination and public election process open to all people living in the city of Natchitoches who are 21 or older and who are not felons. The positions are volunteer. But they have term limits. A board member can serve two consecutive three-year terms (6 total years). After that they have to step down for a year before being eligible to sit again. This was all approved by lawyers and a district judge. It should be simple. But several of the members of NCIF have made it quite complicated. Four have refused to step down for 2 years, putting them 2 years over their term limit. Those members are Leo Walker, Oswald Taylor, Diane Blake Jones and Mildred Joseph. In the last few weeks, I’ve learned that two more are 1 year over their term limit: Gwen Hardison and Gwen Williams. According to IRS form 990, both were voted on to the board in 2016. That means they have been on the board 7 years and you can only serve 6. At the meeting, I tried to find out if any of them were ready to step down. I revealed to Williams and Hardison that they too are over their term limit. They did not respond. As this goes to press, I have still not heard from either in regards to whether or not they will step aside as the bylaws require.
Walker apologized for being 42 minutes late, (but not for being two years over his term limit). I reminded him that he had submitted his resignation at the April meeting. Diane Blake Jones (2 years over her term limit) interrupted by saying that Walker only said he “intended to resign”. I read the resignation letter out loud, which did not back up her inaccurate comment. Here is a complete quote of Walker’s entire resignation letter: It is addressed to the board of directors of the Natchitoches Community Improvement Foundation (dated March 8, 2023). He wrote, “Dear Board Members: Please consider this letter as official notice of my immediate resignation as President of the Natchitoches Community Improvement Foundation. Serving as President and a member of this organization over the past several years has greatly increased my knowledge of the dynamics of human relationships; and I am appreciative of your willingness to allow me to serve. If there is anything I can do to assist you in the transition of leadership, please do not hesitate to ask. Respectfully yours,” Rev. Leo Walker Sr., President
So, he should be gone right? Well, it’s never quite that simple with Mr. Walker. At the April meeting when he submitted that resignation, he said, he would resign if the board accepted his resignation. I reminded the board that section 3.6 of the bylaws says the board does not really have power to reject a resignation letter. Still, the board voted to reject it. On that flimsy basis, Walker and his supporters on the board say he gets to stay. (Truth is, basically all of them are term limit violators too), I reminded Mr. Walker and the board that he is already off the board due to violating term limit restrictions. In other words, he is not even on the board and neither are the other violators who have refused to step down. It’s like a hijacking. They run the show without proper authority, ignoring the court approved bylaws.
Citizens attending the July meeting challenged NCIF on the resignation and several other issues. Latoria Freeman, publisher of the Real Views asked Walker why the board voted first and then only let citizens ask questions afterwards. (On NCIF agendas, the public does not get to comment until the very end of the meeting.) Walker responded that the public is not part of the decision. Why not? After all, it’s money designated to go to the public, according to the court approved Plan of Allocation. Why shouldn’t the people have a say in what happens to their money? Ralph Wilson asked the board why, if the public is only allowed to speak at the end of the meeting, several people were indeed allowed to comment during the meeting. As I understood it, he questioned the fairness and suggested the rule was applied unevenly. I would go a bit further: In my opinion, the rule is 100% baloney. It is bunk to deny people an opportunity to input about how you spend their money before you spend it. No legitimate organization involving the public works that way.
By the way, as for those votes the board is taking, most of the people voting are not authorized to be on the board so why are they voting for anything? Why are they allowed to write checks? Why should any financial institution be allowed to give them money? For instance, at the July meeting 9 board members were present. Of that 9, six are over their term limit. Two were properly authorized: Helen Obioha and Renee Taylor. And one, Brenda Milner claimed the board voted her in at the April meeting, but they can’t do that either, as the public has to be notified of all elections and there as to be 15 days’ notice. None of that happened. So she is not authorized either. This matters to you because the board voted to give away $69,578. Only 1 person present for that vote was within their term limit: Ms. Obioha, because Renee Taylor left prior to the vote. Yes, it’s a royal mess. The words “out of control” are quite appropriate.
I asked Oswald Taylor why he and others who are over their term limit are not stepping down. Mr. Taylor is over term limit as treasurer by two years. He said, they can’t find anyone to replace them. I responded that the bylaws do not give them permission to stay past their term limits for any reason. I also pointed out that the agenda for the meeting did not even mention elections. A board member said, it was supposed to be in the governance report, but that Renee Taylor had exited the meeting, so basically that is why it was not discussed. NCIF often uses this excuse of not being able to find people to replace board members. In fact, I found an article I posted on February 7, 2022 in which board members said they could not find people to replace them. Rev. Ronnie Evans told Taylor that if the members with expired terms would step aside, there would be plenty of people willing and ready to fill the empty seats. I give the pastor an “Amen.”
Later, Rev Evans told the board that I was just asking the board to do things according to the bylaws.
One of the saddest things about this whole situation is how the board’s general resistance to doing things correctly seems to be eroding and perverting the board members’ Christian moral concepts. For instance, at the start of the meeting Gwen Williams prayed to God that things in the meeting would be done decently and in order—you know that verse as 1 Corinthians 14:40. (Ms. Williams is 1 year over her term limit.) Yet, after praying that solemn prayer, the board allowed the person chairing the meeting to continue chairing meetings despite the fact that he submitted a letter at the last meeting saying he has resigned. Now he has gone back on his word. And as I mentioned a few times, there’s the fact that he is 2 years over his term limit as are three other board members. Two others are 1 year over their term limit and this accounted for 6 of the 9 people present. Then the board allowed all of these unauthorized people to vote to give away $69,578. Decently and in order? Obviously none of those actions are either decent or in order.
Public involvement goes a long way. The next NCIF board meeting is October 10, 7 pm at First Baptist Church, 1116 Amulet Street, Natchitoches, LA.
“The arch of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice.”
—Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., “Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution.” Speech given at the National Cathedral, March 31, 1968
“Let everything be done decently and in order.” –The Holy Bible, 1 Corinthians 14:40