Berkshire Co-Act conflicts being negotiated by alternate boards

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PITTSFIELD — Supporters of former Berkshire Co-Act executive director Paul Deslauriers have formed an alternative board of directors and are asking the nonprofit service organization's current board and its president to step down.

The current board president, the Rev. Ralph Howe, said Thursday that, after an exchange of written proposals for resolving some of the nonprofit corporation's debts, he has hope the conflict that began last summer can be resolved.

"I think there is a constructive conversation going on," Howe said after the current board met Thursday afternoon. He said he's hopeful that within a week to 10 days the parties will know whether debts he is reluctant to leave outstanding can be addressed.

Meeting on Tuesday, Deslauriers and about 20 people with ties to Berkshire Co-Act as donors or volunteers approved an alternate slate of board members. They hope to take over the nonprofit corporation and replace Howe and the existing board, which dismissed Deslauriers in November over alleged mismanagement of Co-Act programs.

Deslauriers said Tuesday he planned to formally propose negotiations to end to the strife of the past year. At his urging, the new board approved a letter to Howe with that proposal, and it was delivered via email on Wednesday.

Howe said later that he had received a proposal to resolve more than $15,000 in debts and address other financial concerns by 2017, but he said he is pressing for an earlier resolution of the debts. A possible solution is being explored, Howe said.

Those present at the meeting with Deslauriers on Tuesday were among those who had signed forms to officially become members of the nonprofit corporation and eligible to vote, according to Deslauriers. He and Howe have differed over whether the original membership-controlled board had been changed to create a self-perpetuating board that adds its own new members, and that point is expected to be part of any negotiations.

Howe, the pastor of the First United Methodist Church on Fenn Street, has stated that he is willing to step aside if the new directors agree to meet some of the financial obligations. Those include more than $8,000 owed to Bruce Beston, a current board member, for work to resolve reporting and other issues that resulted in the revocation by the IRS of Berkshire Co-Act's 501 (c)3 nonprofit tax status.

Howe said all of the requested annual reports and other requested information have been sent to the federal agency, and he expects the tax status will be restored in the near future. The lapse of the tax status was one of several problems Howe said he discovered after becoming board president, which he said led the board to dismiss Deslauriers — the only Co-Act executive director since its founding in 2008.

The new directors, after voting as community members Tuesday to unanimously approve each new board member, also approved a letter to be sent to the current board, seeking to formally engage in negotiations toward a transition.

Deslauriers contended that Howe had begun a takeover of the organization and had shifted some of the programming and assets to Fenn Street Community Development Corp., a nonprofit service group Howe has formed. Howe denies that, saying he was merely concerned the nonprofit was being mismanaged.

"I don't have a personal agenda in this," Howe said, adding, "If we can get the debt paid down, and if they want Paul to run it," he believes the current board will relinquish control.

Deslauriers told supporters Tuesday he hopes the negotiations succeed in an orderly transition, but he acknowledged that if the talks break down the new group might want to resort to legal means.

Directors elected to the new board include Deslauriers, James Conroy, Kathleen Cardella, Zack Duigo, Bruce McDonald, Patricia Neri, William Schaepe, Ben Schawinsky and John Boot.

Named to an advisory group to the board were Joseph Jackson, Belle O'Brien, Ron Shaw, Barbara Wampler and Karil Ravensong.

Deslauriers said they represent a wide range of impressive skills and life experiences and most have been involved in Co-Act programming for years, if not from its founding. The directors, in turn, once again expressed dedication to Deslauriers in representing the spirit of volunteering and collaboration upon which the nonprofit was founded.

A longtime volunteer and supporter of the organization stressed during the meeting that the new board must become more directly involved in financial and organizational decisions, and that specific members have to be responsible for duties like treasurer, accountant or board secretary.

In the past, he said, most duties fell to Deslauriers, who he said naturally tends toward optimism that something can be accomplished, no matter the fiscal or other obstacles.

Some directors also said they were upset by what they called vicious and untruthful criticism of Deslauriers, particularly through anonymous posts on Facebook.

Board member Kathleen Cardella said most of what has been posted — such as on the Facebook page "committee rehash - berkshire qu-ack" — has been inaccurate, slanted or a lie. She said her posts on the site trying to defend Deslauriers or Co-Act members were derided, mocked or taken down.

Lately, she said, fraudulent posts purported to be by her, Deslauriers or other supporters have appeared, along with unapproved photos. She said the board should consider taking legal action over the online attacks.

"It is really horrendous what they are saying on social media," Cardella said. "It is so twisted and so far from the truth."

Conway and Deslauriers said their hope is that the criticism will fade if the issues facing the nonprofit are resolved under a reconstituted board.

Deslauriers also told the new board that he hopes to concentrate first on restoring a Co-Act shared-living affordable housing program, along with the FoodNet community garden and food program and a day labor program.

He said he hopes to also bring back a day center for the homeless and low-income residents, replacing the former Pearl Street Center, which was closed in the fall.

Contact Jim Therrien at 413-496-6247.


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