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Disgruntled Charles Villagers File Suit to Learn What Separates the Neighborhood’s Nonprofit Foundation From its Benefits District

Frank Klein
The Village People: Gren Whitman (left, foreground), a member of the Better Charles Village Coalition, has filed a legal complaint against the Charles Village Community Foundation; also pictured are Better Charles Village Coalition members (standing, from Left) Connie Whiting, Rick Noble, Bill Harvey, Steve Gerwitz, Pam Wilson, Rod Tanner, and (seated) Judy Berlin and Julia Whiting.

By Erin Sullivan | Posted 8/18/2004

When the Charles Village community voted in December 1994 to approve an additional tax on properties in the area to form the quasi-governmental Charles Village Community Benefits District, Gren Whitman was there.

The longtime Charles Village resident and community activist opposed the implementation of the special-taxation district early on and threatened to pursue a legal challenge to the 2-to-1 vote that helped create it. Since then, he has shown up at various public meetings with photos to prove that the benefits district has not rid Charles Village of crime and grime as it was charged to do. He has argued in the media, on the Charles Village e-mail discussion list, and in his own e-mail newsletter, A Majority of One, that the benefits district is secretive, ineffectual, and unforthcoming with the community it is supposed to represent. And he has repeatedly questioned the way the organization spends money—much of it raised by the 12-cents-on-every-hundred-dollars-of-property-value tax levied on residents of the 100-block area the district represents.

Nearly 10 years after it was christened, Whitman is still waging war against the Charles Village Benefits District. Earlier this month, he filed another suit in Circuit Court against the Charles Village Community Foundation, a nonprofit group that helps the benefits district and other community organizations raise money for the improvement of the area.

“We are concerned,” says Pamela Wilson, a Charles Village resident and vocal critic of the benefits district who is acting as spokeswoman for those supporting Whitman’s lawsuit. “We have so little information on what they do [with the benefits district], we don’t know what they do, and we would like to see the minutes of their board meetings. They are, to us, one and the same as the benefits district.”

In April, Whitman, who says the Charles Village Community Foundation is a fund-raising component of the Charles Village Benefits District rather than an independent entity, filed a Public Information Act request to see the foundation’s meeting minutes, treasurer’s reports for the past three years, and a complete list of its board of directors. Whitman contends that since the two organizations work so closely together, have commingled funds on projects, and have a shared administrator—executive director of the Charles Village Community Benefits District Jane Levine—that the Charles Village Community Foundation should be subject to the same public scrutiny as the benefits district. The foundation refused to release the information to Whitman, calling itself a private entity not subject to public information laws. Hence the lawsuit.

“He is wrong,” says Charles Village Community Foundation board President Sharon Guida. (Guida is a former board member of the benefits district as well.) “The court case will prove that. These facts have been discussed with him in terms of the distinction, and he is not satisfied with the responses he has been given.”

Guida says that the community foundation is a “separate entity” from the benefits district: It was founded, she says, in 1996 to help “grass-roots groups in the community who once raised funds through private donations or grants to do various improvement projects in the Charles Village community.” Some of the projects the foundation has worked on include the “painted ladies,” the brightly painted Victorian rowhouses that dot the neighborhood (a program now administered by the benefits district), the Charles Village children’s recreation league, and the establishment of the Village Learning Place, a library and learning center that was opened when the Enoch Pratt Free Library system closed its St. Paul Street branch.

“And the benefits district is one of [the groups we work with],” she says. “The foundation was set up to assist these projects, and as a private foundation; it is not subject to the Public Information Act.”

But Whitman, who is part of the Better Charles Village Coalition, a group whose members contend that the benefits district does not provide enough services to warrant the taxes residents pay to keep it around, insists that “the foundation is an intrinsic part of the benefits district.” He says that taxpayer dollars levied to support the benefits district are being used to support the foundation as well.

“They share board members,” he points out in an explanation of his lawsuit released on Aug. 3. “They are audited together. T.R. Kline and Co., their auditor, insists that the foundation is a ‘component unit.’ The benefits district provided the down payment to the foundation to purchase the building at 2301 N. Charles St. in which the benefits district and the foundation have their offices. The benefits district guarantees the foundation’s mortgage on the building. The benefits district pays for all the improvements on the building, and all office equipment used by the foundation belongs to the benefits district. . . . They have the same phone number! Yet they still claim they’re separate organizations.”

Guida acknowledges that the foundation and benefits district both use the building.

“The building is owned by the foundation and rented by the benefits district,” she says. “The building is sublet. The benefits district is allowed to sublet the space they don’t use and keep the income from it. In exchange, we get to use the premises when we need it.”

She says that the foundation itself has no staff, no income other than the grants it obtains to pay for programs, and no codependency on the benefits district at all.

According to the most recent tax forms filed with the IRS by the Charles Village Community Foundation, the organization raised $122,897 in “direct public support” and $32,585 in government grants during the 2002 fiscal year. It spent $373,902 on its programs and $6,740 on administrative expenses, but the organization still ended the year with $189,047 in the bank. In the breakdown of its program expenses, it lists the benefits district as the recipient of $313,258 and notes that it “worked in tandem with the [benefits district] to enhance liveability in the area by promoting neighborhood security and sanitation efforts, by providing information on marketing and economic revitalization activities, and by serving as a forum for community organizing efforts.” The rest of the foundation’s program expenses consisted of $60,644, used to help “several neighborhood organizations put together the annual celebration and festival to support youth activities and to promote neighborhood beautification.”

“Neither entity can stand on its own,” Wilson contends. She says that the plaintiffs believe that because of the intertwined nature of the two organizations, Charles Village residents cannot get a clear picture of the benefits district’s financial situation. “We believe the benefits district is not in good financial shape right now and we would like to get more information about grants that come in during the year: who they are promised to, how they go about requesting them. We’d just like to know more about what they do.”

Guida says the foundation has not filed a response to Whitman’s complaint yet, but “we have an attorney working on it.” She says she’s not as worried about the outcome of the lawsuit as she is about the divisiveness that comes with the public bashing of the organizations.

“Well we are concerned,” she says. “We’re concerned that there is somebody in the community who continues to foment this unnecessary controversy.”

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