Former director of Berkshire Co-Act proposes ouster of board

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PITTSFIELD — Former Berkshire Co-Act executive director Paul Deslauriers is planning to regain control of the troubled nonprofit service organization through a membership vote next week to replace the current board of directors.

Deslauriers, who was ousted by the organization's current board in the fall, said a membership meeting on Tuesday is expected to consider a new slate of directors, which includes himself. He said he also is working with attorneys to negotiate the departure of the current board president, the Rev. Ralph Howe, pastor of First United Methodist Church, who contends the organization's programs were being mismanaged under Deslauriers.

Howe on Friday expressed weariness in dealing with a tumultuous situation he said he only wants to see through until the community service organization is on better financial footing.

He added that it is "not true" negotiations of any type are underway between him and Deslauriers or any attorneys. "Paul is in an alternative reality," Howe said.

At this point, he added, the current board members are becoming frustrated with the actions of Deslauriers and his supporters and are "tired of the whole mess."

Howe said five members of the board sent a message to Deslauriers saying they would bow out if certain debts owed by Berkshire Co-Act were addressed, but they have received no response to that offer.

The changes Deslauriers now is proposing would do "nothing to address the institutional and fiscal problems he created," Howe said.

The organization, which began in 2008 with Deslauriers as executive director, was conceived as a "membership organization," Deslauriers said, and that format will be reasserted after people who have donated time or money to Berkshire Co-Act — also known as Community ReStart— are formally signed up and eligible to vote Tuesday on a new board.

Howe has said that the nonprofit's corporate format was changed in recent years to make the board self-perpetuating — meaning it selects its own members. Howe said he was asked to serve on the board and then to be its president during management turmoil last year that included the loss of the group's Internal Revenue Service 501 (c)3 nonprofit tax status.

Howe said he believes the tax status will be restored within a few months, after required documents that had not been filed in recent years were prepared and filed with the federal agency. That failure was part of the mismanagement Howe said he discovered upon joining the board.

An apparent contributing factor to the mismanagement issues, Howe said, was that the organization had acquired five houses in the city and begun an affordable shared-housing program for people seeking to overcome personal problems and poverty. That, he said, required a higher level of management skill than in the past and it was not forthcoming.

Howe also said in December that he intended to stay at least until the tax status and other problems had been resolved but he did not intend to remain indefinitely. He said Friday that among the debts he and board members would like to have paid are a personal $7,000 loan from a Berkshire Co-Act donor to cover an insurance cost and more than $8,000 worth of work on the tax status problems by Bruce Beston, a current board member, along with more than $3,000 owed the Methodist Church for use of space there.

Deslauriers has contended that Howe led a takeover of the organization last year and has attempted to transfer Co-Act/ReStart programs to a nonprofit — Fenn Street Community Development Corp. — that Howe established. Howe has denied the allegation.

More than 50 people attended a meeting on Dec. 15, most of whom had previous association with Co-Act as a volunteer or donor. After hearing from Deslauriers and other speakers, the group, 38-0, voted no confidence in Howe as president of the board.

Deslauriers said a similar meeting will be held at 6 p.m. Tuesday at the Berkshire Athenaeum, when, according to a notice sent to members, they will be asked to sign a formal membership agreement and to approve a new board of directors.

Howe said after the December meeting that the no-confidence vote carried no legal authority, as the format for selecting board members had been changed to a self-perpetuating board format, which he said Deslauriers was aware of.

The proposed new board members are James Conroy, Deslauriers, Kiril Ravensong, Zach Duiso, Bruce McDonald, Pat Neri, Bill Schaepe, Kathy Cardella and Ben Schawinsky. Only Conway is on the current Co-Act board.

Deslauriers said he is consulting with attorneys, who are working pro bono, in negotiations with Howe and the current board about a transfer of authority. He declined to name the lawyers at this time.

"Hopefully, we can begin the transition from the old board," he said this week.

Berkshire Co-Act operated community garden, food distribution and day labor programs; a downtown center for homeless people to gather during the daytime, and in recent years, the affordable housing program.

The day center, which was located in the Methodist Church building, was closed in the fall by Howe and the current board. Howe said he hoped to create a more effective program offering counseling and referrals to local service agencies.

Deslauriers said he hopes to resurrect all of the former programs. A shared-living housing program for people who are "clean and sober" and seeking to turn their lives around is the goal for the five Co-Act houses, he said, adding that the group will work with local health and other professionals to provide needed services while keeping rents at $350 per month per person.

As for the former day center, he said the lack of a place for homeless people to gather in cold weather "is already a problem" in Pittsfield — resulting in complaints from shop owners and others about people attempting to find a warm place until the emergency homeless shelters become available during the evenings.

"I think it [a day center] might be a possibility somewhere else," Deslauriers said.

Howe said Friday that, should any of the people applying for membership status in Berkshire Co-Act wish to first view the nonprofit's financial books, he would arrange that, believing the documents would show his assessment of the operation is valid.

Contact Jim Therrien at 413-496-6247.


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