What do you get when a nonprofit organization operates on tax payers' dollars while refusing to allow the tax payers to attend its meetings?
You get a SC Freedom of Information Act violation. The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) is designed to protect tax paying citizens from groups who may want to take their money and meet secretly to spend it on wasteful projects like... well... I'll let you insert your favorite wasteful project here. You see, we the people work hard to earn our $$$. Then our elected officials take some of that $$$ and spend it on us. They buy us roads to drive on, police to protect us, and in Conway they buy us a Main Street USA program(CMUSA). The FOIA basically says that since we the people pay for these services we have a right to know how these groups are using our $$$. The FOIA applies to any groups which use your tax dollars to operate.
Just last week Barbara Streeter (local citizen, small business owner, non-profit leader, Conway Main Street member) brought a law suit against CMSUSA citing a FOIA violation. The complaint alleges that the violation occurred when CMSUSA board member Larry Biddle refused to allow Mrs. Streeter to attend a committee meeting because she did not receive his personal invitation. Click here to see the full article on this incident. It does not appear that Mrs. Streeter is seeking any personal financial gain from this suit. The complaint is requesting payment for actual attorney fees, and a declaration that a FOIA violation occurred. State and Federal Laws protect her right to attend the meeting as a citizen. National Main Street USA encourages her attendance as a local member. And because of her recent success with CREATE!Conway, even the City of Conway had encouraged her to return to CMUSA to see how the groups could work together.
*(Notice! chatter asterisk) After Barbara was tossed from the meeting, the City of Conway was informed of the incident. Sources say that meetings between City Officials and CMUSA leadership quickly followed. The City has said that they spoke with CMUSA regarding the incedent, and it should not happen again. Many expected an apology from CMSUSA to follow. Those expectations were dashed when a contact at the city said that CMSUSA would not apologize due to all of the negative Internet chatter that followed the incident. The cited negative chatter occurred on ConwayJournal.com, Twitter, and Facebook. Note: all negative chatter is still posted and available for review. Observation: Barbara Streeter is not listed as posting any negative commentary about the incident.
Let me see if I've got this straight. Barb gets kicked out of a meeting that she's legally entitled to attend. Then, others publicly show disapproval and anger about her rights being violated. Then, CMSUSA leadership decides not to apologize to Barbara because some people made their negative feelings public. Second Grade Simplification: Steve slaps Bob. Bob's friend calls Steve a jerk. Steve refuses to apologize to Bob because his friend called him a jerk. (cue sarcasm) Oh I get it now, that makes perfect sense.
I hope the CMSUSA membership can pull this storied organization out of the three year nose dive before it finally crashes. Unfortunately my crystal ball is sparking from all the activity so I'm unable to accurately read the future. One of the issues is that many businesses have just given up and are no longer members, so they have no voice within the organization. I'm also aware of at least three current board members who are not interested in continuing their board positions at the end of their term. While they're not happy with the current situation, they have no desire to lead the necessary reforms. Honest and determined leadership will need to materialize if positive changes are going to occur.
Money could prove to be the most effective catalyst for change. For the past three years CMSUSA has been citing money problems as the source of their ills. After hearing the $$$ excuse being used for the hundredth time, I decided to check out the problem for myself.
How much $$$ do they need? According to the national guidelines for a city the size of Conway they have met or exceeded budget recommendations for the past five years. So it doesn't appear that income is an issue.
The red flag appeared when I reviewed tax filings for numerous Main Street Programs across the Southeast. Out of the 25+ 990 forms I reviewed, Conway Director Gail Alexander was the second highest paid director that I could find. The director that out earned her ran a program who's budget tripled Conway's. On average for a program the size of Conway's the director is paid $32k and in many cases there is no paid administrative staff. Compare that to Gail's salary of $41K plus a $25K assistant and you see they spend $32K more for salaries than other more conservative programs. $32k could buy a lot of facade grants, promotions, and advertising; all things that we've had to sacrifice for the past three years. Or we could just continue to allow the program to consume $100+k a year, and accept the one festival, some Christmas promotions, and generous portion of drama as a good return on investment.