Upheaval at Dayton’s Bluff Community Council

Marjorie Otto/Review • Turmoil and layoffs at the Dayton's Bluff Community Council came to a head at the council's Dec. 18 board meeting. More than 150 people showed up demanding that the organization's former executive director, Deanna Abbott-Foster, be immediately terminated and not kept on in a volunteer-basis during the organization's transition to a new executive director.

The Dayton’s Bluff Community Council is in turmoil after the organization fired all paid staff earlier this month due to “budgetary shortfalls.”  

Former staff members are accusing Deanna Abbott-Foster, the community council’s former executive director, of lacking transparency, mismanagement of finances and for allegedly using people of color and their personal projects to bring in funding for the organization. 

According to former staffers, the problems came to light during the week of Nov. 13. Staff members were asking about the council’s budget through the end of the year to forecast and plan for upcoming events. 

Two staff members, Lupe Castillo and Mary Anne Quiroz, said it came to a head when they were told that along with other bills, staff members wouldn’t be paid.

The staff went to the community council board with their concerns on Nov. 20, and the board voted to put Abbott-Foster on a two-week leave starting that day, while it tried to figure out the organization’s financial situation.

In an interview, Abbott-Foster said the organization is having “cash issues, not organization-ending issues.”

The Dayton’s Bluff Community Council owns WEQY, a local radio station, and is supposed to pay the rent for the Indigenous Roots Cultural Arts Center through February. 

The nonprofit council advises the St. Paul City Council on matters involving the Dayton’s Bluff neighborhood, such as zoning, new businesses, and other neighborhood issues. The St. Paul City Council is not bound by the community council’s recommendations.


Not a surprise

On Dec. 4, the board laid off all paid staff, including Abbott-Foster, due to budgetary shortfalls and because the board thought it unethical to keep staffers around without pay; none had been paid for six weeks. The next day, Abbott-Foster returned, without pay, to do what board members called “voluntary work.”

Jeanelle Foster, president of the board for little more than two weeks, said the board voted to have Abbott-Foster come back to help the organization transition.

“She is the keeper of a lot of this wonderful work. She started a lot of these relationships and built this district council to its capacity and we need to retain that information and knowledge from her,” Foster said.

Following the layoffs, vice president of the board Crystal Norcross announced on Facebook Dec. 12 that she was resigning because “my concerns about mismanagement of funds were repeatedly ignored.”

After the Nov. 20 board meeting where Abbott-Foster was put on two-week leave, then-president Elizabeth Matakis and then-treasurer Quintin Kidd resigned from their positions. Other members of the board have also resigned. 

Since Norcross’s resignation and staff members sharing their news on social media, others who have worked with the organization in the past said they are not surprised to hear of its problems.

Many of the staff member’s accusations have been backed up by Dayton’s Bluff Community Council partners and former board members.

Sage Holben, a longtime Dayton’s Bluff resident and former board member said via email “What is happening is a pattern going back to when I was on the board and fighting the same battle for transparency, disclosure of finances and contractual agreements.”

Holben was a part of the hiring committee that hired Abbott-Foster nearly seven years ago, and supported her hiring at the time. 


Questions of management style

Staff members have accused Abbott-Foster not only of financial mismanagement and keeping them in the dark about funding issues, but also of using people of color and their personal projects, like Quiroz’s Kalpulli Yaocenoxtli dance group, to bring in funding for the organization.

The former staffers said the organization has had a high turnover rate with staff members, and that in recent months fundraising to pay the council’s bills had taken priority over community and cultural work.

“For me, this speaks to larger systemic issues,” said Castillo. She said Abbott-Foster and her behavior is another example of someone “wanting to portray yourself as saving [people of color].”

“It was time to say no,” Castillo said.

The majority of the staff members who were laid off are people of color.

“My work is based on my reputation and trust,” Quiroz said. “Now I’m being labeled as a disgruntled employee. It’s unfair and unjust.” 

Abbott-Foster said she believes much of the problems come from a misunderstanding of her management style. She said when it comes to budgets, “they can’t spend anything if they don’t have a good idea. I need to know what to spend it on.”

When asked about the accusations of a lack of transparency, Abbott-Foster said she was not sure what they meant or how she could have been more transparent, as she said she gave regular reports to the board.

She said the organization has had trouble raising funds this year and paid for unplanned projects, like the Indigenous Roots Cultural Arts Center and additional staff.

Abbott-Foster said she admits that she takes risks to get things done and to create opportunities. “We are very entrepreneurial,” she said. 

She added that she had been planning, in the months leading up to being put on leave, to retire at the beginning of 2018. She said she still plans to do so.

“I’ve committed the last six and half years of my life to the East Side.” Abbott-Foster said. “There’s no way I did it for personal gain.”

She said the current tumult is based on “a personal agenda; it isn’t a community agenda.”


Board and community face off

The Dayton’s Bluff Community Council held its regularly planned board meeting at 6:30 p.m. on Dec. 18. 

Before the meeting, some 150 community members gathered at the Indigenous Roots Cultural Arts Center to talk about the recent events and to march down the block to the East Side Enterprise Center, where the board meeting was held. 

After a few agenda items, members from the crowd began questioning when they would get a chance to speak.

People from the crowd questioned the transparency of the board and Abbott-Foster, asking why she had been asked to return to help the organization transition as a volunteer.

After chants of “Hell no, Deanna gotta go,” board member Barry Frantum made a motion for Abbott-Foster’s immediate termination, barring her from working for the council as a volunteer during the organzation’s transition or in any other capacity. The board attempted to discuss the motion, but were interrupted multiple times.

After nearly half an hour, the motion went to a vote, failing on a vote of 5-6, as the crowd shouted “Raise your hand,” and “Hold yourself accountable.”

Around 8 p.m., the board voted to end the meeting without having covered the majority of its agenda. 

The community council is undergoing a fiscal audit and board members said the board will create a hiring committee to begin searching for a new executive director next year. Board members also said that as of Dec. 18, two staff members had been paid for the previous six weeks, with the organization trying to figure out how to provide back pay for the other former staffers.

Following the meeting, the crowd hung around to “hold the space,” saying its issues had not been resolved. Many said they planned on attending the Dec. 20 St. Paul City Council meeting to highlight the community council’s issues.

The crowd dispersed after a fist fight broke out between a woman from the crowd and a female board member. The community council’s next meeting is scheduled for Jan. 22.

– Marjorie Otto can be reached at 651-748-7816 or at eastside@lillienews.com. Follow her on Twitter at @EastSideM_Otto.

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