Members of the Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People say they're hoping to elect a temporary chairperson to replace current Chairwoman Lavonia Allison at a special meeting Thursday night at White Rock Baptist Church. Whether they'll gather more momentum than previous efforts to oust Allison is unclear.
Allison has been in charge of the organization for 13 years and has been long criticized for her stranglehold on the Committee's activities, to the exclusion of other members, and for a lack of transparency in the organization's finances and other matters.
The special meeting, the work of former city council candidate Darius Little and community activist Victoria Peterson, is scheduled for 7 p.m. Meetings are typically called by the chairwoman, but Peterson says a meeting may be called by any member. The group's constitution and bylaws were not available.
Reached by phone Monday, Allison said, "The Durham Committee isn't having any meeting on Thursday."
The Committee has historically been the most influential activist group in Durham, earning national renown for its Civil Rights efforts, support of public education and its outreach work during elections. But of late, political observers say the group has suffered from Allison's tyranny. From all reports (which are not public), membership has dropped dramatically, although contributions to the organization's political action committee continue to roll in, particularly during election season.
East Durham minister and Durham Planning Commissioner Melvin Whitley tried to unseat Allison in a December 2009 bid for the chair position in the Committee. Although more than 200 people showed up to White Rock Baptist Church that winter night to vote, only 25 people were deemed eligible to cast ballots, due to an attendance rule many have said is incorrect or contrived. The election results somehow amounted to only 15 votes for Allison and three for Whitley (media were not permitted to enter the meeting). Several public officials, including city council members Cora Cole-McFadden and Howard Clement said they supported Whitley. The issues Allison's opponents raised then appear to persist.
"I’m always concerned when people aren’t transparent about the finances of a public institution, be it a church, a nonprofit. If you don’t have anything to hide, you should be transparent," said Keith Corbett, a former member of the Committee who in 2009 said he was considering running against Allison for chair.
Now, halfway into Allison's seventh term, Peterson and Little have circulated a Feb. 18 letter from Peterson (PDF) to the Committee's parliamentarian. The letter says Peterson and other members have asked for the organization's financial reports repeatedly with no response, despite being told they could schedule an appointment to view financial information.
Peterson said Monday she had called Allison for an appointment for several weeks with no response. Around the third week of February, Peterson said, she went to the Committee office in downtown Durham and Allison would not open the office doors for her, and threatened to call the police.
"I talked to her through the glass," Peterson said. "She said I was bothering her, harassing her." When Allison picked up the phone, saying she was calling police, Peterson said she left.
"What's going on in the Middle East needs to happen here," Peterson said. "Dr. Allison has been in office too long and she has abused her power."
When reached by phone Monday, Allison said she wouldn't answer any questions beyond the initial query about the meeting because she was busy.
Peterson and Little have also noted that the Committee, which is supposed to have regular meetings, has not published annual reports required by the organization's rules and has missed several meetings due to cancellation by Allison. They also say new leaders elected last month to serve under Allison have not been sworn in.
Despite their best efforts, Peterson and Little may not be able to rally the support they're looking for, as both have been pushed to the political fringe in the past several years.
Little, who ran for city council in 2009, has faced public scrutiny for bouncing checks while he was attending college, and more recently, for court findings that he misrepresented himself as a lawyer and took money for services he didn't provide. Before Little even pleaded guilty to a related misdemeanor charge, the indiscretion cost him a spot on the Durham Planning Commission.
Peterson, an activist in Durham for more than 20 years, has run several unsuccessful campaigns for city, county and state-level offices. She can usually be found at public meetings with questions in hand about government spending, budget items and incentives, but also often uses questionable information in making her arguments. Many say she lacks the credibility to garner a strong following to Thursday's meeting.
Both Peterson and Little have at times been aligned with Allison on various several issues. But at this point, Peterson said, she's "sick of it."
"I’m sure that there could be people that may get upset with me, but this is more than just Victoria Peterson," she said. "We have an organization that’s going to die on the vine if we do not quickly put in new leadership. There are people in this community that would love to see the downfall of the Committee, and that is not going to happen."