Dayton’s Bluff Community Council reflects on year following upheaval

Challenges remain ahead

 

Nearly a year after turmoil caused by failed leadership and cash flow problems, the Dayton’s Bluff Community Council held its annual meeting Nov. 19 — an event reserved for electing new board members and looking at the gains of the past year. 

Though the yearly meeting is typically about celebrating projects or initiatives, this meeting’s celebratory tone was more about survival after a series of personnel and funding dramas over the past year.

Late last November, with the organization facing budgetary shortfalls and layoffs, employees brought human resources complaints to the board of directors against then-executive director Deanna Abbott-Foster.

Abbott-Foster was eventually terminated after more than 150 community members came to a December meeting to protest her further involvement with the council.

The Dayton’s Bluff Community Council partners with many organizations, large and small, to do its work in the community. Many of those partnerships hung in the balance following the upheaval and lack of cash, as the council handles finances for some of those partnerships.

Out of the financial and human resources mess, a number of board members resigned, leaving the volunteer-run board of directors with only seven members out of a possible 18. Those remaining board members worked to get council’s former staffers their back pay and figure out how and where things went wrong.

“It has been a lot of sweat and work just to ensure that one, we are being honest and transparent, so there is a commitment to the community that we serve and an obligation to responsibility,” said board chair Jeanelle Foster at the annual meeting.

It wasn’t until March that the board hired interim executive director Lissa Jones-Lofgren, along with interim operations manager Brenda Reid, to lead the organization and help pick up the financial pieces and repair partnerships.

While the organization is now stabilized, the board and staff said there are still many challenges ahead.

 

The ups

Jones-Lofgren gave a community update to share where the council is at in terms of internal changes, external partnerships and the flow of cash within the nonprofit organization. 

“The Dayton’s Bluff board of directors has been strengthening process and procedure to make sure we have proper oversight, that the governance body understands what its roles and priorities are, that it has tools available to it, like monthly financial [reports] to understand the health of the organizations, and proper checks and balances are in place to try to do our best to assure that what happened before, doesn’t happen again,” Jones-Lofgren said.

She said the council is working on being more transparent, including making its financial information public and more accessible. Also, starting in January, Jones-Lofgren said the council will hold community conversations to talk about the different roles in the organization to give a clearer picture of how it operates. 

Beginning with some of the positives of the past year, Jones-Lofgren said the Dayton’s Bluff Council and the Latino Economic Development Center now have complete nonprofit ownership of the East Side Enterprise Center, the building at 804 Margaret St. that serves as offices for the council and many other local organizations. 

The council is also serving as a member of the local East Side xChange, a job training and employment collaborative working to provide tools for East Siders to get good-paying jobs. 

The council was also awarded a $300,000 grant from the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development to help provide consultation and support services to entrepreneurs of color on the East Side, which will be done in partnership with the Asian Economic Development Agency, African Development Solutions and the Latino Economic Development Center. 

In addition, the St. Paul City Council’s Innovations Fund Grant awarded the council $18,000 to work on equity in the neighborhood over the next  three years. Each of the 17 district councils in St. Paul was awarded a share of the grant to work on equity across the city. 

The council was also awarded a $57,000 Community Engagement Reimbursement Contract for 2018, which serves to fund the work of the council engaging in the community, including planning and educating residents and businesses about issues affecting the neighborhood.  

One example of such work is the council’s Get Out the Vote campaign, which was done through its radio station, WEQY and MN Voice, with the goal of getting Dayton’s Bluff residents to pledge to vote in the 2018 midterm elections.

 

The downs

While the council has had its ups, Jones-Lofgren said it’s continuing to deal with the financial fallout that came to light a year ago. In the update, she said the council had been losing cash since 2014 without a means to replace it. 

“This organization lost a lot of money organizationally, and it lost a lot of other people’s money,” she said. 

Jones-Lofgren said the council is continuing to monitor its losses and pay partners back when funds become available.

As a direct result, the work funded by a National Endowment for the Arts grant awarded to the council last summer to work on an arts chapter in St. Paul’s Comprehensive Plan has been put on hold. The $100,000 grant is reimbursement only, Jones-Lofgren said, and the council can’t currently afford to do the arts chapter work out of pocket.

Indigenous Roots Cultural Arts Center, A New Black Arts Movement, WEQY Radio, the East Side Freedom Library and other local organizations are partnering with the council on the arts work.

“We’re talking with the National Endowment for the Arts on how to not lose the opportunity, but one thing I will not do is cut corners, and I will not do things not transparently and the board has assured [me] they will not do the same,” Jones-Lofgren said, adding the council is currently discussing its limitations and what can be done at this point.   

She added that in order to cut some organizational costs, the council’s staff will no longer have office hours on Wednesday and Fridays. 

 

A few new board members

Despite the ongoing challenges, the board and Jones-Lofgren felt that the election of four new board members was a positive step, helping to fill out the understaffed board. Elections were put off earlier this year as the council stabilized and the board operated with the seven members with which it started the year.

Thomas Germscheid was elected in subdistrict D, Jacob Puffer in subdistrict C, Andrei Hahn in subdistrict B and Rebecca Nelson was elected for an at-large position. Current board member Barry White was also re-elected. The Dayton’s Bluff neighborhood is separated into four subdistricts for the purpose of balanced neighborhood representation. 

There are seven more open positions on the board, and details about them can be found on the Dayton’s Bluff Community Council website, www.daytonsbluff.org. Foster, the board chair, said filling the vacant board seats will be an ongoing process, especially as the council embarks on its next steps, including bringing the community together to work on a community plan.

“We’re still working through troubling stuff right now,” said Foster, “and that’s where people need to understand that we have been stabilized, thanks to this leadership and this team of folks, but there’s still a ways to go.”

 

–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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