By Edwin Crayton/Opinion
Should a board member be able to hold on to a seat 2 years past his or her court- ordered term limit? What about 1 year past the term limit? Is it right that a chairman should resign his position “immediately”, then right after his resignation letter is read, continue to chair the meeting and other meetings for months? Should the board of that organization allow him to do so, even though their bylaws do not give them such authority? Should a treasurer be able to go 9 months without giving even one treasurer’s report? Should a board also ignore stipulations that they conduct an audit annually, and instead neglect to conduct audits for nine years? If a judge orders an organization to abide by their bylaws and specifies this in an official judgment, can the organization just ignore the judge and the bylaws too? These are some of the questions a lawsuit seeks to answer this coming Thursday, September 7, 2023, in court at 9am in the morning.
The suit is being brought by Citizens for Democratic Action, headed by Harold Bayonne. That organization and Helen Obioha, a current board member of the Natchitoches Community Improvement Foundation (NCIF) are suing members of the NCIF for violating term limits and a range of issues. For about two years, Ms. Obioha—one of the few properly seated board members— has asked the violators to step down in compliance with the court-approved bylaws. She has recently been joined by two other board members, Elton Wade and Jerry Walters, who have also asked the violators to step aside. In recent months, other citizens who have been disturbed by NCIF’s actions have been attending meetings and speaking out about the need to create needed change by making NCIF run as it was designed to and as the foundation has promised it would run, benefiting the people of Natchitoches, not just certain individuals. Why should you care? Simple. The money that they have in their treasury is designated to go to people living in Natchitoches. That means you. Allow me to give you a brief backstory. The Natchitoches Community Improvement Foundation was founded in 2003 to distribute money won in a settlement in the late 1990s, resulting from a dangerous pcb spill into Sibley Lake. Money from that settlement was designated to go the citizens of Natchitoches and be given out in the form of grants and scholarships. The money funded four areas: Education, recreation, economic development and seed money to acquire grants. It’s not peanuts. Last count, they had over 2 million. It may be more or less now. We don’t know because they haven’t had regular treasury reports and they also haven’t had the require audits.
The suit seeks to get the foundation to take the term limit violators off the board, hold true and fair elections open and accessible to the public, and also seeks to get NCIF to comply with the court approved bylaws. I have lifted excepts from the lawsuit to serve as a kind of highlight reel of the main issues mentioned in the suit. The suit alleges the following:
“By previous judgment of this Court, NCIF had its board adjusted and its by-laws adjusted and adopted to govern its existence and operations post judgment.” NCIF has not complied with the articles and court approved by-laws since the prior judgment of this Court. By way of illustration, the board members have not been properly elected, meetings have been held in secret claiming executive session, no required audits have been conducted, and very few persons claiming board membership have been properly elected. Similarly, the funds of NCIF have not been used for their intended purposes, nor have grant requests been properly handled or otherwise processed or awarded. The Board has failed to amend its articles to comply with the Court’s prior orders. Persons claiming to be on the current board of NCIF are simply not valid board members, and have not been properly elected.”
The suit makes the point that “these persons were not validly elected, or have served on the board for a term in excess of the term limits in the court-approved bylaws of NCIF. Further, the NCIF board of directors has failed to take nominations from “any and all community interests” and many board members were not so nominated. Many board members have served on the board for over 7 years despite the orders of this Court. On information and belief, the board does not and has not for some time had enough persons to constitute a full board under the bylaws.”
(Let me interject that from my own records there are six violators. Those violators are: Leo Walker Sr., Oswald Taylor, Diane Blake Jones and Mildred Joseph. All are two years over their term limit according to my records and data from IRS 990 forms. They came on in 2015—8 years ago. Two others are one year over their term limits: Gwen Antee Hardison-Davis and Gwen Williams, both came on the board in 2016—7 years ago. Board members can only serve six years, or two consecutive three-year terms. (Then they must sit it out for a year.)
The suit document goes on to say this about the officers, “Walker claims to be the President of NCIF, Mildred Joseph claims to be the Secretary of NCIF, and Oswald Taylor claims to be the Treasurer of NCIF. Their terms have expired. A writ of quo warranto should issue unto each of those officers and NCIF ordering them to show by what authority they claim office.
I believe the saddest thing about the Natchitoches Community Improvement Foundation is that six board members are over their term limits and defend their violations by claiming ridiculously that they cannot find anyone to fill their seats. The truth is, that’s baloney. The fact is, they don’t make it easy for members of the public to join the board. For instance, just the other day, while I was shopping, I ran into Businessman Marvin Blake Jr. He told me he had applied to be on the board and did everything they told him. He mailed in his information. He was told he would be on the agenda at the July 11, 2023 quarterly meeting. But that night, when he checked the meeting’s agenda, he was not on it. He left. Ironically, that night, I mentioned to the board that there was no mention of elections on the agenda. And that has been happening ever since the term violations started: elections are not even mentioned on agendas.
I believe what is happening with this foundation is that they have forgotten why they were created. They were created to distribute funds from a settlement to the people of Natchitoches. They are just an instrument. The money wasn’t made for them. They were made for the money—meaning, they were meant to be a means of getting the money into the hands of the people of Natchitoches. That’s all. But what has happened instead is, over time, their goal has become diverted and has morphed into the creation and building up of the foundation. These days, looking at their actions, it seems to them, it’s all about the Natchitoches Community Improvement Foundation. And really, because that boils down to about 9 or10 people or less, it’s really all about these specific folks. That’s why I believe they are refusing to step down. Maybe they see themselves as the foundation. I don’t know. Whatever the reason, these term limit violators need to go because they have overstayed their welcome by one year in some cases and two years in others. It’s as simple as that. I believe it also shows that money from a settlement should be given directly to the recipients. Keep it simple. This case is a warning of what can happen when money designated for the public is put into an organization and no controls are put into place to regulate their behavior and make that foundation accountable to the people. The Natchitoches Community Improvement Foundation like any group that has money designated to go to the public has to be made transparent and accountable.
All the things I mentioned in the first paragraph happened at the foundation: Leo Walker submitted his resignation then continued to chair meetings. Oswald Taylor hasn’t given a treasurer’s report in nearly a year. There haven’t been audits in years, etc., etc.. I don’t know how his hearing will turn out. But it’s good that members of the public have taken the initiative to try to remedy this totally unacceptable situation by filing this suit. I thank God for that. Court cases often set precedents. I pray that this suit and hearing doesn’t set the negative precedent of giving these people license to continue to violate term limits and mishandle these funds—emboldening them to do even worse things. Instead, I hope it will set the positive precedent of sending a message that no one is above the law and that the public and courts need to be and will be respected.
The hearing is set for Thursday, September 7, 9am in the morning at the courthouse at 200 Church Street.
“Let all things be done decently and in order.” 1 Corinthians 14:40