Debate over Neponset center could signal citywide changes

Murphy Community Center: Change in status?Murphy Community Center: Change in status?The director of the Boston Center of Youth and Families is proposing that several of the independent councils dedicated to supporting the city's community centers - beginning with the Murphy Community School Council in Neponset - drop their independent non-profit status and become part of a larger organization.

The proposed reform may prove difficult to implement, especially at the Murphy Center, which is already embroiled in a battle for control of the council.

After a bump in youth-related violent crime drew hundreds to emergency meetings in the Neponset area this summer, attention increasingly dialed in on the Murphy and its programming - or as some term it, its lack of it.

A Community Center Task Force created at those meetings quickly discovered that the Richard J. Murphy Community School Council - an independent 501c3 non-profit which fundraises for and can make programming recommendations to the Murphy Community Center - seemed to be doing little in the way of new programming for teens.

"In the context of community programming, there's obviously been a disconnect. Whatever that is it's debatable," said Pope's Hill Neighborhood Association president Phil Carver. "I just know this: the community needs a place to go, young and old. And for better or for worse, the Murphy is the place. This community should get it back."

A group of around 20 parents began attending the center's monthly meetings regularly, researching the center in their spare time.

They found that the board included only six active people, but listed nine in its 2007-2008 annual report. Two executive board members listed home addresses in different neighborhoods - South Boston and Hyde Park. And the council's 990 form to the Internal Revenue Service in 2007 reported funding for programs that simply no longer exist, such as a schedule of field trips and crafts for 500 seniors.

The council's hired coordinator Elizabeth Murray, who works at the center, told the Reporter last week there is no senior program whatsoever run by the center.

The six long-serving board members of the council found themselves and their activities under a microscope, and a bevy of parents breathing down their necks to get involved.

Joan Pierce, the council's acting chair, defended the small board's tenure in a phone interview this week. "If those six people didn't stay on the council, there wouldn't be a council," she said. "We've been trying to keep things going but I wouldn't say it's been dormant… We may not have been vocal, but that is very different."

Pierce attributed mistakes on the council's IRS 990 form to an accountant.

"That's a heading that he had there and he should have changed it, is what he said," she told the Reporter. "He said he would come out and clarify that."

According to Boston Center for Youth and Families (BCYF) director Daphne Griffin and countless others, the nature of the debate over the Murphy Council is not entirely unique.

"We have some very high performing councils, five of those," she said. "They have good standing with the Attorney General, their 990s are clear, they have nominating committees and governance committees."

But others may need to be reformed, she said.

"Improvements need to be made… We have to really bring existing councils to board governance that is relevant to 2009. We can only make a recommendation as to what we see is needed."

Many community centers across the city have gained reputations as "little fiefdoms" over the years, where personalities can sometimes control funds accrued over decades, create a culture unique to their center, and even stymie efforts by newcomers to create new programs.

The word "fiefdom" was definitely heard from parents demanding positions on the Murphy Community Council's board, just as the thinking behind it - though perhaps with slightly different wording - was central to Griffin's efforts.

At a Jan. 12 Murphy Community Council meeting, the two efforts, aimed at the same problem, squared off.

Just as the insurgency's dozen or more nominees were demanding to be officially appointed to the board by acting chair of the council Joan Pierce, Griffin presented her proposal for an entirely new organizational model.

"It was a very loud and very energetic meeting," said Griffin. "The recommendation that we made was to look at other options to support the Murphy Center in lieu of a 501c3."

After recent reforms at BCYF's citywide board, Griffin told the parents, the city wants to encourage its under-performing community centers to move toward other options, such as an advisory board that would fall under the citywide board - thus creating one power structure, one accountant, but with several facets that would retain separate bank accounts.

"We'd be under the umbrella of the citywide board," said Pierce. "It's very similar to how the Boys and Girls Club or the YMCA is organized. The (council) would still have its own [bank] account and they could still make recommendations."

"People that want to do that work may not need to do that in a 501c3," Griffin told the Reporter. "This is something we're looking at across the board. It's something we've been working on for months. One of the early things I wanted to tackle was the structure of the citywide board and all the councils."

One potential problem with the system now, said Griffin, is that the board members on any council could be held personally liable. "If someone sued the Murphy Community Council, for whatever reason, they could also come after the board members," agreed Pierce. Legal investigations into the councils is not just a fear, but a reality.

"There has been a council investigated by the Attorney General, but I'm not at liberty to discuss who or what," said Griffin. "Everyone on the council is liable for its actions."

At the very least, the city wants to sign letters of agreement with the community centers that outline the working relationship between the centers and the BCYF. The letters would help insulate the city legally, while also influencing the councils to follow their missions, said Griffin.

But Pierce said she isn't yet convinced the city's proposal is a good idea for the Murphy.

"I'm going through the pros and cons here," she said. "I'm still studying it."

And Griffin's proposal came as a complete surprise to parents who wanted to join the community council's board at the Jan. 12 meeting. They quickly blocked an executive session Pierce tried to call to address Griffin's proposal, thinking the executive board might just approve it then and there.

Instead of seeing it as a new and more efficient management effort, some said they thought it to be a power play by the city - or possibly a response to the AG's investigation. Both are theories Griffin denies.

After tabling the discussion on the BCYF proposal, Pierce appointed 19 nominees to the council, including her husband, son and her son's girlfriend, but also several of the parents chomping at the bit to get involved. Two of the appointees are awaiting verification that they are members in good standing, according to Pierce.

The board's annual elections, where bigger changes - like the makeup of the executive board - could occur, do not happen until June.

Meanwhile, next month's meeting of the council could be the true indicator of the near future at the Murphy. Some parents involved are calling for a sweep of the board and all the center's employees, while others - including some new members of the board - seem to be hunkering down and waiting to see how well the new council can work together.

"I actually welcome the new ideas," said Pierce. "My children are older and I've seen what the Murphy Community Center has done for them. If we can offer that same opportunity to others - we welcome the new ideas and the new blood."