Clara White Mission CEO refutes accusations of poor leadership
In a news conference Sunday afternoon, Ju’Coby Pittman refuted accusations leveled against her by five of six former Clara White Mission executive board members.
She also expressed concerns about how the controversy over her leadership would affect the 118-year-old nonprofit that she’s run as the top administrator for 28 years.
Pittman gave a prepared statement characterizing the accusations as an effort to slander and defame her by smearing her leadership and portraying it as dysfunctional.
“The false allegations against the Clara White Mission are not true. They are false. And they are slanderous to me, the board of directors. It’s hurtful and it’s damaging to the financial support that we have worked so hard for,” Pittman said.
Five of the nonprofit’s six executive board members resigned last week. They cited what they described as Pittman’s “lack of transparency,” including her failure to hire a new chief operating officer as they directed in April.
Pittman said Sunday the mission has a proven record in the organization. During the recent COVID-19 outbreak, the mission’s staff followed procedure and CDC guidelines.
“The [former] board members who interceded didn’t understand the process. And if you don’t understand the process I think you need to ask questions before you just try to take over and cripple the impact of feeding the homeless,” said Pittman, noting she was hospitalized with COVID-19 and nearly died when the controversy began.
The mission lost two weeks of funding for its drop-in center serving homeless veterans because of the pandemic, she said. The recent controversy isn’t helping, she added.
“Because of what’s happened in the last week or so has been very damaging and donors are considering withdrawing their support,” Pittman said.
“So, I say to you all today, there’s no smoke and mirrors at Clara White Mission. I’ve been very transparent. All I have is my name and the good work of [founder] Dr. Eartha M. M. White who has made it an opportunity for me to carry on the legacy,” Pittman said.
She declined to take questions afterward. Instead, Pittman referred reporters to noted Jacksonville attorney William “Bill” Sheppard, whom she identified as her lawyer in the matter.
Pittman, who also serves on the Jacksonville City Council representing District 8, was flanked Sunday by at least two dozen supporters including her family, church leaders including Bishops Rudolph McKissick, Sr. and Jr. as well as mission staff, remaining board members and friends.
Among accusations by former board members, they said Pittman declined to hire an “extremely strong candidate” whose potential hiring tentatively attracted a $90,000 grant, they said.
Michelle Paul, former board chairwoman, issued a joint statement from the resigning members. They said Pittman failed to inform them of a recent COVID-19 outbreak before it led to her hospitalization, the death of a longtime chef and the closure temporarily of the shelter at 613 W Ashley St. in downtown Jacksonville.
The resignees also said Pittman withheld reports, documents and other information. In addition, there was no procedure in place to operate the mission during Pittman’s illness, which they said prompted them to step in.
“We all have a fiduciary responsibility and manage the CEO, who manages the organization,” the statement said. “The lack of transparency. … from the CEO made our work a constant struggle.”
Resigning from the six-member executive board were Paul and Joe Whitaker, Dee Paez, Stephanie Fields and Kris Mattson resigned. Cindy Laquidara, who is a general board member, also resigned.
Under Pittman’s leadership, the mission has expanded the mission from a soup kitchen to a “one-stop community development center,” according to the mission website.
It provides job training, job creation and housing for city veterans, ex-offenders and low-income residents.
Sunday, current board members spoke in support of the mission’s work in the community as well as Pittman’s service and management of the facility.
Dinah Mason, now board chair and only member of the executive board, who didn’t resign, spoke on behalf of the mission’s status. Mason said they have the full backing of the community that they serve.
“As the board chair, I would like to express to you that the Clara White Mission is solid. We have new members in our new board committee. …We are ready and eager to continue the work that has been done for 118 years in this community,” she said.
Pastor Carlton Jones, a member of the board of directors, cited a series of emails between those who resigned. They were trying to force the hiring of a particular CFO candidate, he said,
“With their own words, you can see they intended to damage the Clara White Mission. They also went as far as to imply and threaten the CEO Ju’Coby Pittman, if she did not approve this candidate that they were trying to force her to hire …” he said of the apparent motive for the attack on Pittman.
Jones also said there has been accountability at every board meeting — defending Pittman’s action.
Times-Union reporter Beth Reese Cravey contributed to this report.