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Time To Let Old ONE/CHANE Go

COMMENTARY by Stan Simpson
November 12, 2005

Frederick Smith's contract as executive director of the ONE/CHANE community organization expires in January.

Then he'll have a not-so-difficult decision to make: Re-up with an organization that is already in arrears in paying his salary or move on. Conveniently, there's a U-Haul business right down Main Street from Smith's North Hartford office.

When Smith exits ONE/CHANE, he might as well turn out the lights; he's the only employee left.

Beset with mismanagement by Smith's predecessor and lax oversight by a previous board of directors, ONE/CHANE has lost its credibility, viability and ability to advocate for the poorest neighborhood in one of the country's poorest cities.

Time to dissolve it and start anew. But first, how about a full accounting of how the 18-year-old organization got itself into this mess? Brothers and sisters, before ONE/CHANE can be reborn, it has to repent.

Under its previous board and executive director Larry Charles, the group decided to invest in real estate. It wasn't a bad idea, really, but the group wasn't experienced in managing rental properties.

The organization owns four occupied buildings with 60 units. Two other buildings are vacant. All are refinanced to the hilt, in arrears and in disrepair. Some tenants hadn't paid rent in years. Even ONE/CHANE's Main Street headquarters was compromised, used as collateral for one of the refinances.

Then, there were the troubling family connections. Charles' cousin was the group's finance director. Charles' brother reportedly ran a ONE/CHANE affiliate in New Orleans, unbeknown, until recently, to this new board and largely unknown to the North End community. The Internal Revenue Service is calling. Attorney General Richard Blumenthal is investigating.

"It's pretty obvious to the community what happened at ONE/CHANE," said new board member Greg Davis, counsel at St. Paul Travelers. "Some management decisions took place that were not in the best interest of ONE/CHANE and were not fully disclosed to the board and the full body."

About 75 people attended what was essentially an emergency meeting this week. Tempers flared. Emotions were raw. Promises were made. It was a lot of wasted energy.

The irony is that while the group finds itself at its lowest point, new leadership in the past year has actually added some integrity. Smith started work last year. Five of the eight board members are new; soon it will be six. There is now a real estate manager handling the devalued properties.

It's a little too late.

An audit has been completed but not released, because the accountant is owed $6,000. A forensic audit, a more comprehensive investigation of how money was received and spent, has not been done. There needs to be one.

This is the second time in 12 years that ONE/CHANE finds itself disconnected from its contributors, its constituents and its mission to provide programs such as job training, health care and housing assistance to the neighborhood.

"It may take a white-washing, like with an old fence, to create a new name, a new organization and a new process for how it can survive," said Mike Fothergill, a community leader.

ONE/CHANE's self-inflicted demise comes as Hartford is in full transformation trying to attract a more upscale clientele downtown.

Fred Smith, who previously ran a New Haven behavioral health operation, admits he'd like "for ONE/CHANE to be put out of its misery" and for the group to "restructure, and reorganize with a new name."

But a new name works only if supporters have assurances, through deeds and not words, that the old nonsense won't happen again.

Meanwhile, as Smith's contract expires and his pay comes in dribs and drabs, he's getting antsy about his own future.

"I wanted to win here. I wanted to turn it around," he says. "I've looked out for ONE/CHANE. I've got to start looking out for Fred Smith now."

Stan Simpson's column appears Wednesdays and Saturdays. He can be heard live today on WTIC NewsTalk 1080 from 5:30 to 10 a.m.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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