Disputes with CEO prompt Jacksonville mission board members to resign
Five executive board members of the Clara White Mission have resigned, citing what they called CEO/President Ju’Coby Pittman’s “lack of transparency,” including her failure to hire a new chief operating officer as they directed in April.
Pittman also declined to hire an “extremely strong candidate” whose potential hiring tentatively attracted a $90,000 grant, they said.
In a joint statement issued by former board chairwoman Michelle Paul, they also said Pittman failed to inform them of a recent COVID-19 outbreak before it led to her hospitalization, a longtime staffer’s death and the downtown Jacksonville shelter’s temporary closure. In addition, they said she withheld reports, documents and other information and had no procedures in place for the mission’s operation during her illness, prompting them to step in.
“We all have a fiduciary responsibility and manage the CEO, who manages the organization,” according to the statement. “The lack of transparency. … from the CEO made our work a constant struggle.”
As leaders of the 20-member volunteer board of directors, they “no longer felt they could fulfill their duties given the constant adversarial relationship with the CEO,” according to the statement. “When we can no longer protect the legacy of the honorable [founder and humanitarian] Eartha White, it is it time for us to leave.”
The executive board has six members. Paul and Joe Whitaker, Dee Paez, Stephanie Fields and Kris Mattson resigned. Cindy Laquidara, who is a general board member, also resigned.
Pittman, who has been the mission’s top administrator for 28 years, deferred comment to Dinah Mason, the remaining executive board member. Mason is first vice president of the 20-member board.
“The Clara White Mission remains dedicated to preventing and reducing homelessness … It relies on a volunteer board of directors to help raise money to accomplish its goals,” she said in her statement. “Unfortunately, five executive board members resigned this week. … We respect the decision of each executive member and wish them well.”
She said the resignations have not hampered the work of the mission but did not address the specific allegations made by the executive board.
“We continue to mourn the loss of our head chef, Keith Smith, who died as a result of COVID-19,” Mason said in the statement. “We support our President/CEO Ju’Coby Pittman as she continues to recover from being hospitalized. We are dedicated to the community in the fight against coronavirus.”
Latest COVID numbers:COVID-19 hospitalization numbers up and down in Jacksonville, across Florida
Emails reveal tense situation
Pittman, a Jacksonville native, has expanded the mission from its soup kitchen origins into a “one-stop community development center,” according to the mission website. The nonprofit provides job training, job creation and housing for city veterans, ex-offenders and low-income residents.
In 2018 she was appointed to the Jacksonville City Council‘s District 8 seat to replace incumbent Katrina Brown, who faced federal fraud charges. Pittman was elected to a full term the following year.
The mission provided copies of emails that outlined the recent tense back-and-forth between Pittman and the five since-resigned executive board members about the planned hiring of a chief operating officer. The board members clearly favored a particular candidate who had extensive nonprofit experience. But they expressed grave concerns about a comment they said Pittman made about wanting a second-in-command “who looks like” her, according to the emails.
The top candidate is white; Pittman, and Mason, are Black. The five executive board members who resigned are white.
In Pittman’s email response to them, she wrote that they “took my words out of context. I was speaking about relating with the clients, staffs and culture of the mission’s … outreach of 118 years.”
Paul, in her resignation letter, wrote that when she arrived, the board was not following its own bylaws, such as conducting CEO performance reviews.
“For years Ju’Coby has run the board by controlling what the board knows and by hand-selecting individuals she believes she can control,” Paul wrote.
Treasurer Joe Whitaker “had expressed his growing concern and frustration over requests for reports and information” that he and the board never received,” Paul wrote. “There are three members on the executive team that work for financial institutions. It is imperative that we know our CEO is operating with the utmost integrity and not wasting the resources our donors provide.”
But other members suggested an executive board power play was at work.
In a Tuesday email to the five since-resigned executive board members, general board member Carlton Jones accused them of “excluding” Mason, the sixth member of the executive committee, from meetings.
“Let’s see if reasonable leaders of the Clara White Mission can come together to resolve these differences before the board and the … mission’s legacy is tarnished,” Joneswrote. “I realize that the executive committee was disappointed that Ju’Coby didn’t agree … with hiring your choice for COO, but this is not the way to resolve it.”
And in a Wednesday email to Mattson, Mason suggested “personal gain and vendettas” by the executive board were at play. “I don’t know what is going on here and what you all are trying to accomplish, but you all should be ashamed,” she wrote. “Just imagine if you all put this same effort into fundraising how much money could have been brought in while Ju’Coby was fighting for her life. All of this is unprofessional and utterly disgusting.”
The city of Jacksonville has provided a stream of grants to the Clara White Mission over the years, including a 2019 grant agreement for up to $1.5 million for the nonprofit organization’s White Harvest Farms & Market project on Moncrief Road in Northwest Jacksonville.
Mayor Lenny Curry and the City Council supported using $597,260 from the federal CARES Act in 2020 for the mission when they divvied up nearly $16.6 million among various nonprofit organizations and businesses for recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic.
Legislation pending before the City Council would provide a $100,000 grant to the mission for building repairs and upgrades at 613 W. Ashley St. in downtown where the center serves homeless veterans.
Pittman’s financial disclosure filed with the state in June 2020 showed she received $89,151 in income for her work at Clara White.
Times-Union writer David Bauerlein contributed to this report.
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