CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Struggling even to maintain proper leadership, and calling board members’ absences a “disease with our board,” the LGBT Community Center of Charlotte’s board of trustees met at their monthly May board meeting on Wednesday evening and heard a proposal to ask the Mecklenburg Board of County Commissioners for up to $25,000 in assistive funding from taxpayers.
The board meeting — attended in person by three board members with one other on the phone — barely had quorum. It’s the second time in as many months the seven-member board has faced low leadership turnout. In March, the board failed to meet quorum, only three weeks after the organization had said it might close due to lack of funding.
Taxpayers to the rescue?
Board Chair Roberta Dunn, Vice Chair Bert Woodard, member Ranzeno Frazier and, by phone, newly-minted member Judd Gee listened to Charlotte Business Guild President Chad Sevearance present two proposals to help the center raise crucial funding. The ideas come at a time when the center — according to financial documents briefly reviewed by this newspaper tonight — has operated at an approximate $7,500 loss since January.
Sevearance said two county commissioners have offered insight on the process to ask the commission for up to $25,000 in funding for the center. Mecklenburg commissioners will meet next month to continue their discussions on the county’s 2014-2015 budget, where center board members could approach the county for assistance.
“It was brought up that we should get [the center] on the line item for budgeting through the county commission,” Sevearance told the board. “That has never been done. No one has ever broken through that barrier. … All they need is a motion and a second to get on the line item and then it’s open for discussion. At that point, it will be up to whoever the presenter is to sway — which is going to be swaying the Democratic portion of the commission to go in the direction of giving you a line item, which could be anywhere from $5,000 to $25,000. It could fall anywhere; it’s whatever you decide to ask for.”
Sevearance also presented a second proposal to safeguard business donations. The Charlotte Business Guild’s proposed “Front and Center” campaign would allow businesses to donate to a secure fund held by the guild. Monthly allotments would be donated from the secure fund to the center, with business’ donations refunded if the center should close.
“The Business Guild is in full support of keeping the center open,” Sevearance said. “I think it would be an absolute shame for the center to be in dire straits constantly with stop-gap measures and for the community to see that — as we do go and ask for bigger and better things — it will give us a black eye if we are not supporting the center. I think all organizations need to support the center, but on the turn, I think that the center should also listen to the concerns of the community, too.”
Center board member Woodard praised Sevearance and the Charlotte Business Guild for their proposals and support.
“The leadership at the Charlotte Business Guild is really impressive,” said Woodard, a former guild board member and president. “It means a lot that you foresee a partnership between the guild and the center. I think it can grow as you continue to work with us to find ways to increase benefits and nurture that relationship. It means an awful lot.”
A third fundraising program — targeting LGBT-friendly businesses — was also discussed. Dunn said a community member had suggested the idea to the board. For $100, participating businesses would receive several benefits as well as a sticker identifying their business as LGBT-friendly and a supporter of the center.
‘Disease with our board’
As the center struggles to pay its bills, it’s also struggling to attract engaged leadership. In March, the board was unable to hold an official meeting due to lack of quorum. Center Chair Dunn was ill and other board members were not able to make the meeting.
On Wednesday evening, only Dunn was present at the meeting start time of 6:30 p.m. Two others — Frazier and Woodard— joined her five minutes later with a fourth member, necessary to reach the required quorum, joining the meeting via phone.
Dunn acknowledged early on the problems with board engagement.
“It seems to be a disease with our board,” she said, noting tendencies for board members to get promoted or take on extra work at their jobs.
During the center board’s public comment period, this writer asked Dunn if she was concerned that her board failed to muster quorum just three weeks after a potential closure and if she found tonight’s poor showing indicative of an inability to properly lead the organization through strategic planning needed to bolster the group.
Dunn offered a reminder that public comment was not intended to be a question and answer period, but allowed Frazier to respond. Frazier said the board had decided not to have a meeting in March, citing Dunn’s illness, and said his and Woodard’s tardiness on Wednesday had been communicated to Dunn.
Despite troubles gaining quorum, Frazier explained that the board works together, but shouldn’t be held responsible for ensuring board members’ presence at meetings.
“It’s not up to us to get people here. We put it out there for them to know that it is here. It is up for them to make it,” he said. “We as a board do work together. We all do have full-time jobs other than the center. That doesn’t mean we are not together as a board. We work together. We communicate through email, phone calls and text message about everything going on with the community center and with the community.”
Frazier also pushed back on earlier reports that the center might close.
“As for the center being closed, it was never said we were going to close down,” he said. “We were just lacking in funds. I think that was put out there in the wrong way.”
This writer challenged Frazier’s assertions, citing multiple comments from the center itself regarding its possible closure in February.
Frazier said community members should quit discussing the center’s potential closure.
“We are still alive. We are still open. We are still running,” Frazier responded. “So, the concern that we are going to be closed should not even be brought up again because we are still here.”
Frazier also pushed back on this writer’s appearance at the center’s LGBTQ Spring Olympics fundraiser last Saturday.
“We actually had a fundraiser on Saturday in which we had a lot of participation from the community and I seen [sic] you there but before any of us could talk to you, you were gone,” he said.
This writer redirected a follow-up question to Dunn, inquiring whether she was concerned about Frazier’s response and what seems to be the board’s inability to discuss the organization’s business during normal board meetings.
The question was ignored.
“This isn’t a speaking time,” Dunn replied.
You can listen to audio of that full exchange below.[audio:http://goqnotes.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/05/LGBTCenterQuorum.mp3]
Bylaws changes questioned
As the organization struggles to raise funds for operations — with some $7,000 in expenses each month — it also continues to face questions on trust and transparency.
The organization had responded to criticisms last fall and instituted open board meetings and a new membership structure some hoped would provide more oversight from donors. But, according to financial documents, the center has raised only $71 in membership fees.
Other bylaws changes have been imminent, including processes to elect new board members. A discussion on bylaws changes was tabled tonight, after Dunn mentioned the board was moving forward with changes during an upcoming weekend meeting that wouldn’t be open tot he public.
Dunn’s comments were challenged by this newspaper’s publisher, Jim Yarbrough, one of three community leaders brought into a March meeting to discuss organizational goals and concerns. The bylaws were among them.
[Ed. Note — The names of leaders asked to assist the center were not made public by the center board. This writer was not aware Yarbrough was among them until after the meeting took place and was not made privy to the contents of those closed-door discussions.]
At Wednesday’s meeting, Yarbrough took issue with Dunn’s forward movement with bylaws changes and said he had not received any feedback or communication from the board since March.
He said the center was lacking in transparency and misleading the public.
“You told the public that you have outside people to come in and help with the bylaws,” Yarbrough told Dunn and the board. “You have one meeting and those people never hear a thing again for three months and then you’re making bylaws changes? We didn’t even complete the meeting. … The process wasn’t even near complete and now you’re moving forward without people’s input. Why did you tell the public you were bringing in people to help you if you’re not letting them help you. No wonder you’re having problems.”
Dunn nor other board members responded to the comments, but decided to table discussion on the bylaws.
The center’s troubles can be traced back to at least 2006, when the organization was found to have been siphoning money out of a reserve account for the local Pride festival it then shepherded. Resulting leadership at the center continued to face questions about transparency, eventually leading up to town hall meetings in December and in February.
In February, the center announced it had just $6,000 cash on hand and would close at the end of the month without an influx of support.
The center has since held several fundraising efforts, some larger, some smaller. This weekend’s LGBTQ Spring Olympics raised approximately $200.
[Ed. Note — The original version of this article mistakenly noted the year in which the LGBT Community Center of Charlotte was found to be taking funds from Pride Charlotte. It was 2006, not 2007. We regret this error.]