Community center shake-up prompts longtime members to cry foul

By 
Stephen Kurkjian, Special To The Reporter
May. 26, 2011

A bitter split has erupted among past and current members of the citywide board that oversees the network of neighborhood community centers set up to provide a range of after-school programs for youths and families across the city.

Several of the five veteran members of the board who were unceremoniously sacked from the board last October are threatening to take their complaint to the state attorney general’s office – that political gamesmanship played a role in the election that resulted in their removals.

Three of the five contended in interviews that top members of the Menino administration, including Daphne Griffin, director of the Boston Centers for Youth & Families, had engineered their removal from the board last October because they had expressed dissent over her performance in leading the city’s 38 community centers.

The question of how to improve the performance of the city’s community centers, which, despite costing the city more than $20 million a year, have failed to provide high-level, active programming on a consistent and complete level, was at the core of the dispute.

Griffin, who has been director of Boston Centers for Youth & Families since 2008, says that a total restructuring of the role – and membership – of the citywide council was needed. A series of bylaw changes were instituted in 2009 to make the council more advisory than operational in nature and provide it with members who had fundraising clout in the city. They also were meant to help find members who would ensure that community centers in poorer neighborhoods without active groups maintained sufficient programming.

The dissenters contended that while they agreed with her overall push to change the council’s roles, they had little faith in Griffin’s leadership and came to believe that they were removed to blunt their criticisms and allow her to centralize control of the community centers.

“To me, this whole thing was engineered by Daphne Griffin, without a shadow of a doubt, to get rid of some dissidents to her way of doing things,” said David J. Gorman, an 80-year old West Roxbury resident who has been involved in the Ohrenberger School’s community center since it was established in the early 1970s. “This was clearly set up by her and it had the support of the mayor.”

Griffin denied that she had worked behind the scenes to remove the five members, saying she was “surprised as anyone” by the October 25 vote that resulted in their ouster. However, she acknowledged that she considered some of the five to be “antagonistic” to her leadership of the community centers and the citywide council, and that prior to the vote she had spoken with Mayor Thomas M. Menino and others in the administration about her ideas for reconfiguring the council.

Griffin said that while she regretted the removal of individuals who had long been dedicated towards improving the performance of the community centers, the citywide council desperately needed to change its focus – from operational to one of providing more overall guidance to neighborhood community centers and adding fundraising clout.

“From a visibility and fundraising standpoint, we were looking to think outside the box,” Griffin said. “I was personally looking to re-energize the board as a whole.”

Asked about the possibility that the ousted members might file an official complaint to the attorney general’s office, Griffin said:  “They should follow the course they think they need to. If the attorney general finds there to be an issue, then, of course, we would look at all of it.”

Kerry Costello of Jamaica Plain, one of the five council members ousted last October and a public school psychologist who has long been an active member of the board that oversees community centers in Jamaica Plain, said she did not disagree with Griffin’s goals. But she said her frequent clashes with Griffin centered on her concerns that Griffin was not a proven leader and yet she was seeking to centralize all policy decisions and spending by the local community centers within BCYF.

The responsibility for running the community centers had long been a shared one – between the BCYF’s central office and local citizen boards that determine what kind of programming is best suited for the centers’ roles in their neighborhoods.

However, as an in-depth article in the Reporter in March detailed, more than half of the community centers are failing to provide a full range of programming for youths and families. Invariably, those centers offering the least active programming were overseen by local boards that were inactive or barely in place.

To offset that imbalance and make sure these centers received adequate funding to operate active programming, Griffin backed several bylaw changes made in 2009 that were meant to clarify how the council operated and how members were to be elected. Kerry Costello said that while she agreed with the overall goals of those changes, she had expressed concern about the protocol being followed in adopting them.

“I wanted to make sure that all interests were served, the community centers, the neighborhood groups as well as City Hall,” said Costello. But when she brought it up to the bylaw committee, she was told “all the work was done, these are the changes,” she said.

Costello said this week that she would sign her name to the dissenters’ complaint, a draft of which viewed by the Reporter alleges that the election resulting in the removal of the five from the board was “illegal.”

Specifically, the complaint asserts that the by-laws of the board were improperly changed shortly before the October election that altered the process for becoming a member of the board. In addition to be being a member of a council for one of the neighborhood centers, which had been the sole determining factor in the past, members had to be “ratified” by a majority of the other members of the citywide board.

When the votes were counted, five members – Gorman, Costello, Bertha Banks, Steve Godfrey, and Wayne Martin – failed to win a majority and were dismissed from the citywide council. Like Costello and Gorman, the others had long been members of the citywide council because of their continuing membership on neighborhood boards.

A draft of the complaint maintains that many of the 11 members of the citywide council who voted to oust the “dissenting” five are aligned with the Menino administration as city employees, city vendors, or political allies of the mayor.

Michael Lynch, treasurer of the citywide council, denied that the ouster of the five resulted from any secret initiative to remove dissenters. Instead, he said, a year before the election of last October, the council had approved a new set of bylaws that called for the membership of the council to be altered to bring community advocates as well as those with fundraising abilities on as members.

“That the membership of the council was about to change should not have been a surprise to anyone,” said Lynch, who heads the Mayor’s Office of Cable Communications.

However, what was new for the October 2010 meeting was the mandate that each member joining the council would have to be approved by a majority of the members attending the meeting. That mandate had not been among the changes in the council’s bylaws that had been approved in 2009; but it was among the provisions that were included in a memorandum sent out to all members five days before the meeting on how the election process would proceed.

Before the balloting took place, Costello, saying she “saw the handwriting on the wall,” moved to have the council vote as one to approve the entire slate of 16 individuals whose names had been placed in nomination. But that motion was rejected; the 16 members proceeded to cast their individual ballots, and the five dissidents were out.

Ken Ryan of South Boston, a Menino political ally who chaired the committee meeting, did not return repeated phone call requests for interviews on how the majority-approval provision had made its way into the electoral process. Nikko Mendoza, then clerk of the citywide council and the author of the October memorandum outlining the new election procedure, did not respond to a call for comment either.

Mendoza has since left City Hall and is now deputy director of governmental affairs inside the office of Governor Deval Patrick.

Stephen Kurkjian is the Senior Investigative Fellow at the Initiative For Investigative Reporting in the School of Journalism at Northeastern University. His work for the Dorchester Reporter is funded by grants from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation. The foundations are committed to supporting investigative and watchdog journalism by community news organizations in the Boston area. Stephen Kurkjian can be reached via stephen@dotnews.com.