Community calls for more open, transparent Charlotte LGBT center

Programs, rental policy, volunteer engagement discussed

by Matt Comer  Editor  editor@goqnotes.com
Published: December 5, 2013 in News

lgbtcentercharlotteCHARLOTTE, N.C. — Nearly 100 people gathered on Wednesday evening for a town hall discussion at the LGBT Community Center of Charlotte, with conversation often returning to key concerns on openness, transparency and board accountability.

The town hall was planned in response to several commentaries from this writer at his personal blog last month.

Local attorney Connie Vetter, a longtime leader within the LGBT community and a former center board member, served as moderator at the meeting.

“What I want to see come out of tonight is a good discussion, a good use of everybody’s time here and good solutions,” she said at the beginning of the meeting.

Community members were offered the opportunity to suggest topics of conversation. Open board meetings were first discussed, with audience members repeatedly calling for transparency from board members. The center’s current bylaws require that all board meetings be closed to the public unless the board votes to open them.

“In community organizations as opposed to boards that are closed, one of the benefits of having an open board meetings is that it helps create leadership development,” said community member Gary Knight. “If you need committee members you have people who may serve on a committee, if you need new board members … you have a way of bringing people up. I think it is a positive thing, not a negative thing, to have open board meetings when you are a community organization.”

Center Board of Trustees Chair Roberta Dunn said she and other board members were considering changing the bylaws and allowing four open board meetings each year. Dunn also said she would begin publishing each board meeting’s agenda on the group’s website. The group meets, she said, on the third Wednesday of each month.

“There’s really nothing secretive about it,” Dunn said.

But, some continued to question why board meetings were closed.

“If there’s nothing secret, why does it have to be closed?” asked Richard Grimstad, a co-director with Charlotte Pride.

“Because that’s the way the current bylaws are,” Dunn responded. “In our next meeting, I said we would discuss that. I said we’re going to discuss having four meetings. We can expand that discussion at the board meeting, but that is not something we are going to do right now.”

Issues of openness and transparency continued to creep into other conversation points throughout the evening.

Several current and former volunteers shared their experiences feeling alienated or ignored by the center’s leadership.

“One thing that has to be really looked at very hard is how the community center has over and over again managed to alienate people who wanted nothing but the best for them,” said volunteer Christine Blonowicz.

She said the center needed to “find out what happened to those relationships and why it happened and see what you can do about turning that around, because if you turn that around they will all come. But, one by one … people have felt alienated. How is that happening and how can we make that not happen any more? Because that’s why we’re losing volunteers.”

Blonowicz’s remarks garnered the first of several other audience applauses at the meeting.

Janice Covington, a local activist, asked why the group changed its structure from a membership-based organization. That change was made sometime in 2006 or 2007. The center had previously used a membership structure to help raise funds, totaling near $134,000 from 2002-2006, and to elect board members.

“I think membership would be a mechanism by which the board would be held accountable and would have direct feedback from the community,” said community member Laura Maschal, “and I think that is what the interest is, not specifically, necessarily just membership.”

Dunn said the question on members had been discussed under a recent board chair. She said she was open to continuing that conversation.

“It will be brought up in our board meeting,” Dunn said. “I don’t have a problem personally with membership. I think it could be a good thing. It’s a good forum for fundraising, and we look at the LGBT population of Charlotte, it’s a very large community and they should be supporting the community center and by membership they could. I don’t have a problem with that one bit.”

Some audience members questioned how much money the center is currently spending on its facility. The group has consistently spent half or more of its annual expenses on rent and similar expenses like utilities. Though grant funders and donors help support the organization’s operating expenses, the center charges some groups for using space at the center.

Dunn and other board said she knew of few groups that actually have been asked to pay for space. William Singleton, president of Charlotte Black Gay Pride, said he had never been required to pay and said the center needed to charge for space if groups could afford it. Others said they were not clear on rental expectations.

“I would just like to know what separates the payers from non-payers,” asked Sam Mercer, president of Chi Psi Omega Fraternity, whose group hosts regular community events at the center. “Each time we pay. Every single time. … I don’t really mind paying, but even with the people who pay are the rates consistent?”

“There’s a lot of confusion about the purpose of the community and the question of space goes to that,” said Maschal. “The idea is if that’s what the center is about, then they shouldn’t be charged.”

Center board member Crystal Long said the center uses its rental rates as a revenue stream to support the group’s missions, adding that rental rates were very affordable compared to other meeting or event spaces in Charlotte.

But, Lacey Williams, a former center board member who now works with a local advocacy organization, said the center’s rental structure seemed like “double dipping.”

“I hear the thought about charging rent as a revenue stream, but you all have a revenue stream through grants and grants are tied to the mission statement,” Williams said. “If the mission statement is about providing space, then it’s kind of like double dipping to raise revenue to provide space and then charge community members to use that space.”

Williams echoed others’ remarks that the center needs to clarify its policy and make it more fair for smaller organizations.

“There needs to be some sort of delineation and it needs to be clear as daylight and consistent,” Williams said. “All of these things come back to transparency and when there is a lack of transparency, people default to mistrust and mistrust makes me thing you’re doing something bad to me when you may not. I think a lot can be done around looking at policies and making them really clear and posting them where people can find them.”

Dunn and other board members said they would be open to looking at a more clear rental policy.

Other topics discussed at the two-hour town hall included the center’s programming and hours of operation. Center Operations Director Glenn Griffin said he hoped to increase the center’s open hours and look to new programming.

Board member Kelly Durden said programming would take a central role going forward.

“The reason I joined the board is because I wanted programming,” Durden said. “Give me suggestions. I want to take the lead on this. Programs, yes! I want to take the lead.”

Durden said a new programming committee will begin meeting soon, and it will be open to those who have ideas or want to volunteer.

The meeting was, at times, tense, but center board members and those in attendance seemed to think it had produced positive feedback and a chance for open conversation.

New board members like Durden and Jimmy Smith said the meeting allowed them to hear about some history they didn’t know about. They encouraged community members to approach board members with concerns.

“Sometimes we just don’t know,” Smith said.

Moderator Connie Vetter ended on a positive note, thanking board members and the audience, while encouraging future conversations.

“I want to encourage you — this is a lot [of information] and this is a volunteer board — I want to encourage your patience. I want to encourage your follow up,” Vetter said in closing. “Hopefully we will see a lot of change come out of this or whatever the board decides to do. This is our community center and we are all here working to make it successful and responsive.”

The LGBT Community Center of Charlotte has said Wednesday’s town hall would be the first in a series of similar events, to be held four times each year. They said such meetings “will become a tradition of openness for the LGBT Community Center of Charlotte.”

Board members present at the meeting included Chair Roberta Dunn, Vice Chair Bert Woodard, Durden, Chris Gray, Long and Smith. Board members Scott Coleman and Jenny Richeson did not attend.