PITTSFIELD — Thirty-eight people at a meeting Tuesday concerning the troubled Community ReStart organization unanimously voted no confidence in board President the Rev. Ralph Howe.
Paul Deslauriers, who had been the executive director since the group's founding in 2008 before being removed by the board of directors this fall, said afterward that he would like to see Howe resign from the nonprofit's board. If that doesn't happen, Deslauriers said the organization's members will consider legal action to effect that change.
"My hope is that the community itself, by bringing up enough of a protest" can remove Howe from the board, Deslauriers said.
Howe, the pastor at First United Methodist Church, said Wednesday that the vote is not legally binding, and he does not intend to resign until the nonprofit resolves its current tax-status and other management issues.
Over two-plus hours in a meeting room at the Berkshire Athenaeum on Tuesday, more than 40 people active in Community ReStart (formerly known as Berkshire Co-Act) described a chaotic situation this fall in which they said Howe — the pastor of First United Methodist Church — initiated a "hostile takeover," in Deslauriers words, of the community-based programs and some assets.
Howe on Wednesday described a much different situation and an organization he said was suffering from mismanagement when he was asked by Deslauriers to join the board in 2014. Among the pressing issues, Howe said, were the revocation by the Internal Revenue Service of the nonprofit's 501(c)3 status, in part because several required annual forms had not been filed.
Those forms have now been filed, Howe said, and he expects the nonprofit's tax status to be restored, probably retroactively, by spring. He doesn't plan to resign, he said, until that process is complete.
Howe added that most of the people who attended the meeting Tuesday, while friends of Deslauriers and active in the nonprofit over the years "are not Co-Act" in terms of legal representation. The nonprofit originally was a membership corporation, he said, but it was restructured, with Deslauriers' knowledge, as it grew more complex into one in which a self-perpetuating board manages it.
The change was primarily required after the nonprofit's programs grew and it acquired five donated houses to create a transitional housing program, Howe said. Another of his reasons for remaining on as president, he said, is to ensure the transitional housing program works as intended.
Howe also noted that he was selected by the existing board to serve as president, and the same board members decided to part ways with Deslauriers in October, and are people who knew the longtime executive director and the organization well.
Deslauriers initially asked Tuesday for a vote of those present to remove Howe as board president, but some insisted the board had to first clear up questions concerning the legal status of the nonprofit corporation, its bylaws, the role and definition of members, and how much legal authority the board president has.
A vote of no-confidence in Howe was then suggested and that passed on a 38-0 vote.
Several people also insisted that having legal representation is a must to deal with what was termed a takeover of the nonprofit program management and assets and to sort through the status of the nonprofit corporation and its mostly suspended programs.
It also was suggested that Deslauriers not be asked to undertake those efforts on his own, but that he be joined by other members of the group, and several agreed to help in that regard. One speaker said he was concerned that "Paul is being blamed for everything," and was concerned that would happen again if Deslauriers acted alone.
Another stated reason for calling the membership meeting was to honor Deslauriers for his work over the years. He was applauded several times and was praised by several members as "a man of compassion," who "was never in this for the money."
However, it was also acknowledged that the organization has grown larger and more complex and has had management difficulties, particularly since the shared-living, transitional housing program was begun a few years ago and the organization eventually received five donated houses for that purpose.
Asked what he would say to those who voted no confidence in his leadership and supported Deslauriers, Howe said Wednesday that he believes most have been mislead by Deslauriers or others. Anyone who is interested can examine the corporate financial information, he said, adding, "We will be happy to be totally transparent."
Howe credited Bruce Beston, who is acting as chief operating officer for Community ReStart/Co-Act, with putting together information on the nonprofit's tax status and other records.
Kathy Lloyd, who attended the meeting Tuesday, was highly critical of what she believes were illegal or improper recent evictions of people from the housing program buildings. She said she was there to represent people who "can't speak for themselves."
Others present, including James Conway, a Community ReStart board member who is now overseeing the housing program, insisted that there had been no evictions, although some people had to leave because they had violated an agreement they signed in order to reside in the shared living housing.
Conway and others contended that Lloyd was "misinformed" and was listening to unfounded rumors.
Lloyd also sharply questioned how the ReStart/Co-Act organization could operate as a nonprofit apparently without filing required reports for a 501(c)3 nonprofit status.
"It was easy to insult me, but I was asking the hard questions," Lloyd said Wednesday. "My biggest interest is in stopping them from evicting people."
She added, "The more important issue is, why do I have to do this? It's not about me."
At the start of the meeting, Deslauriers said that as part of the corporate restructuring process this year he planned to turn over management of the ReStart community service programs and take a three-month sabbatical from the organization. He said Wednesday that is still his intention if Howe is removed from the board and the programs can be revived.
Those have included community garden and food distribution and day labor programs, as well as the Pearl Street Day Center for homeless people and others, which closed in October.
Deslauriers and others at the meeting contended that Howe had either halted thriving ReStart programs or initiatives or took them over through the Fenn Street Community Corp., which is a nonprofit organization he founded that is based at the Methodist Church.
Howe also denied that allegations the Community ReStart programs were taken over by Fenn Street Community Corp. or that they were thriving. "That is completely untrue," he said, reiterating that the financial records will be made available for inspection.