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An Agency Badly Needs Rescuing

Commentary by Stan Simpson
April 20, 2005

Frederick E. Smith introduced himself at a community function several weeks back, and I couldn't resist.

"The man with a death wish," I greeted the new executive director of the troubled ONE/CHANE community organization that serves North Hartford.

The agency, whose deep roots intersect with the activism of a former community organizer named Eddie Perez, has become an embarrassment. Black folks squabbling over control, money and stature while funders look on askance fits right in with the common notion by those never quite enamored of the African American community.

If the mission of empowering and providing services for poor people wasn't so compelling, a case could be made to shutter ONE/CHANE's doors permanently. It may happen anyway.

A disgruntled, detached and dysfunctional board of directors is chiefly to blame for the organization's internal and external problems. A board of directors in disarray usually is reflected in the day-to-day operations of its agency.

The ONE/CHANE board members let former Executive Director Larry Charles have his run of the place with impunity, then were indignant when they found out he had alienated key funders, staff and community leaders.

Now, they're micromanaging the new guy.

Smith, the 54-year-old former director of a New Haven-based behavioral health agency, knew he'd be stepping in some doo-doo in trying to clean up this mess. He just didn't realize how deep.

There are self-anointed board spokesmen, which is news to Chairman Terry Waller. The Hartford fire captain is struggling mightily to put this structural blaze out. One board member brazenly tried to change the locks to the organization's office before being confronted by Smith. A faction on the board wants to oust both Waller and Smith.

"I told them very pointedly that as long as I'm executive director, I'm going to have control of this office," Smith said, reached Tuesday at a health convention in Chicago.

He was hired in January and said his brief attempt to redirect the organization is akin to "pushing a boulder uphill with two people sitting on it trying to push it down."

Despite the drama, there's actually a glass-half-full scenario for ONE/CHANE. In Smith, they have an integrity-first administrator. An audit of the finances is supposedly near completion. The agency is under the impression that it is eligible for about $1 million in state money, if it can get its act together. A new strategic plan was introduced at a special meeting Monday night, attended by about 30 people who implored the four board members who attended to stop the madness.

The biggest indicator of whether the agency can rebound will be a May 5 annual meeting. Five of the 11 board slots are expected to be filled.

"I'm hoping and praying that the annual meeting gives me a competent, capable and passionate board of directors to work with," Smith said. "One of things I've experienced in my time here is that there is some level of confusion about what the board's function is."

OK, so here's a little primer.

Board of directors: You guys set the policy for the operation. Then let the director do his thing. Hold him accountable with timely performance reviews and get regular updates on the finances and the strategic plan. If you can raise some money through your personal contacts, that would be good, too.

Executive director: You handle the day-to-day. Stay on point with the strategic plan, hire competent staff - no relatives or cronies - and become a trusted ambassador for the organization.

This is crisis time for the city, particularly North Hartford. Young boys are dying because of a shoot-first mentality to resolving beefs. Young men are impregnating multiple women, abstaining only when it comes to their responsibilities as dads. And a literacy-challenged school system has actually eliminated reading coaches and high school honors programs as part of its budget cuts.

Now, the adults appointed to provide leadership for the poorest community in one of the poorest cities in America are behaving like misfits.

Meanwhile, the money needed to run ONE/CHANE is being frittered away.

"I'm very optimistic that having a strong board of directors will be one of the things that moves the organization forward," Smith said.

Mending the agency's business problems is one thing. Erasing the stain on a tarnished reputation is quite another.

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.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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