Race and roots play part in North Minneapolis battleground


Ongoing battles at Jordan Area Community Council landed in District Court on December 3, as vice board chair (and former chair) Ben Myers, an attorney, sued three community members. Myers charges that Dan Wagner, Ann McCandless, and Megan Goodmundson — and “John Doe and Jane Doe” — defamed his character. The ins and outs of the situation are hard to track, in part because lawsuits by Myers and Executive Director Jerry Moore have left many in the community afraid to talk. Several people approached for this story declined to talk, saying that they were afraid of being sued and having to pay thousands of dollars in attorneys’ fees. Myers first attempted to have JACC sue “the usual suspects” as he referred to them in an email, but then went ahead with a personal lawsuit. Defendants have characterized the lawsuit as an attack on public participation and a violation of Minnesota’s anti-SLAPP law (see sidebar.)

What is a SLAPP Suit?
SLAPP stands for Strategic Litigation Against Public Participation, referring to lawsuits that are filed to discourage individuals from civic participation by forcing them to defend costly lawsuits, most of which are ultimately dismissed as frivolous.
According to information furnished by the Society of Professional Journalists:

The essence of a SLAPP suit is the transformation of a debate over public policy – including such local issues as zoning, environmental preservation, school curriculum, or consumer protection – into a private dispute. A SLAPP suit shifts a political dispute into the court-room, where the party speaking out on the issue must defend his or her actions. Although SLAPP suits may arise in many different contexts, they share a number of features:

1. The conduct of the targets that are sued is generally constitutionally protected speech intended to advance a view on an issue of public concern. In most cases, a SLAPP suit is filed in retaliation for public participation in a political dispute. The plaintiff is attempting to intimidate a political opponent and, if possible, prevent further public participation on the issue by the person or organization.

2. Targets typically are individuals or groups that are advancing social or political interests of some significance and not acting solely for personal profit or commercial advantage.

Jordan Area Community Council (JACC) is a district council in North Minneapolis, funded by the city through the Neighborhood Revitalization Program and also by foundation grants. Moore became its executive director in September 2006, first on a temporary basis and then with a permanent contract in April of 2007. Ben Myers, an attorney who had previously been hired by JACC to negotiate Moore’s interim executive director contract, became a board member and chair of JACC in November 2006.

Dorothy Titus, who served as interim executive director for JACC in 2005 and currently sits on the JACC housing committee, said in a telephone interview that she and other members of the community are concerned about the direction that JACC is going. “Rather than programs,” Titus said, “they focused on higher salaries.” Titus said that she and other members were concerned about where money was being spent. She said that in the budget for 2009, six percent of funds were being used for programming, as opposed to the 56 percent when she was the director.

Myers said in a telephone interview that Moore’s salary is comparable to other community center directors, and said the Moore did not receive health insurance. “Quite frankly,” said Myers. “For what he puts up with, he’s underpaid.” (Moore said he is paid $60,000 per year.)

Titus said she was also concerned about a debit card that she said was used to pay current executive director Jerry Moore’s cell phone bill. While Titus said that there was $50 allotted for employees to pay their phone bill, Moore was using more than his allotted money, and charging extraordinary cell phone fees to the organization’s debit card.

In a telephone interview, Moore denied having a charge card connected to the phone bill. He said that when staff does outreach, they use their cell phone a lot. They have since changed their cell phone plan.

Michael K. Brown, a ten-year Jordan resident and an attorney who currently serves on the board, said in a telephone interview that when he joined the board a year ago, he was going to make his own assessment, but when he started to ask some questions, he wasn’t given answers. “It was a very disappointing feeling,” Brown said.

Another perspective: Don Samuels

Don Samuels, City Councilmember for Ward Five, where Jordan is located, has also been at odds with the current JACC leadership. In 2005, when Samuels was elected to the city council, Jerry Moore worked on the campaign of Natalie Johnson Lee, who was running against Samuels. Since then, there has been tension between Samuels and the new leadership of JACC.

According to Samuels, he served on JACC’s board from 1999-2002. He currently lives in Jordan and frequently attends open board meetings. Samuels said, “I think that people who had been on the board for a while got alienated from the very authoritarian style of leadership that emerged.” According to Samuels, the conflict has had racial overtones. “It was as if white people’s turn had ended,” Samuels said.

Samuels said that Jordan has always been combative. According to Samuels, Jordan was 65% white in 1990, and the situation had reversed after ten years. “With that kind of instability, the identity of the board was always being challenged,” Samuels said. “I’m not on any side. I’m a leader of the community, the entire community. I’m on the side of fairness, but in this situation, there’s been a lot of unfairness.”

According to Samuels, “Immature racial language has been used to intimidate whites and blacks.” He has been a target of this language. After one board meeting, he got an email from a board member saying that his performance was a “buck dance.”

Looking to the future, Samuels said that, “leadership has to become a healing influence and must bring people together across difference if the Obama example is going to be something more than a blip on the screen.”

The first red flag for him was a $15,000 contract with Todd Barnes to draw up a strategic plan. At the meeting in which Barnes presented the strategic plan, Moore and then-board chair Ben Myers left the room, came back and told everyone to give back the proposals that had been handed to them. The plan was later re-written.

Myers said that he had multiple meetings with Barnes, but when Barnes presented the strategic plan to the board, “the product that was provided was unprofessional.” Myers said that JACC did not pay Barnes the entire contracted amount because “he was unable to provide the product.”

Moore said that accusations of mismanagement are false. “We’ve always passed our audits,” Moore said. According to Moore, there was a period of time that NRP froze funding due to accusations by the then-board treasurer Deb Wagner that Moore’s initial contract was inappropriate. “After voting for [Moore’s contract], she went around town. She had our funds frozen.” Moore said that JACC filed a grievance with NRP and after an examination, unfroze the funds. Then, in January of 2007, JACC suspended Deb Wagner from the board for 90 days, because of her criticism of Moore’s contract. (Deb Wagner declined to be interviewed because of the pending lawsuit.)

This year, grievances have been filed, board members have been suspended, restraining orders have been sought, and the defamation lawsuit is still pending. Board members, staff, politicians, and community members all have a stake in the heated controversy.

Jerry Moore filed a request for a restraining order against Dan Rother, a board member, after an incident in August. In a heated board meeting, Rother shook his finger at Moore and demanded disclosure of financial documents. Dorothy Titus, who was in attendance at the meeting, said Rother said “Where is the financial information I’ve asked for? I want that information. I’ve been asking for four months.”

Moore said “I thought it was very disrespectful and demeaning. It’s disturbing when someone is screaming at you.” Moore’s motion for a restraining order was dismissed by the court.

Rother declined to be interviewed for this article, but furnished a written statement that said Moore has not furnished financial information, despite repeated demands for financial disclosure on August 8, August 25, in grievances filed in September, and on November 12. Moore said that the JACC will have an “opening of the book” session on December 19 for community members to examine financial documents.

Dan Wagner, a defendant in the defamation lawsuit, is married to Debra Wagner, the former JACC board member who was suspended for 90 days following her questioning of Moore’s pay rate. The Myers defamation claim is based in part on 18 grievances that Wagner filed with JACC. The grievances involved board membership issues, conflicts of interest, actions taken without board authorization, and failure to furnish organizational information to JACC members. When the JACC board refused to take action on the grievances, Wagner took them to the Minneapolis NRP.

Megan Goodmundson, a former board member, is being sued over a complaint against Myers she filed with Minnesota Office of Lawyers Professional Responsibility. The MOLPR decided not to discipline Myers, but in the libel suit hearing on Wednesday, Myers’ lawyer, Kristi McNeilly, charged that Goodmundson has hurt Myers’ business by accusing him of racism, drunkenness, and womanizing. The defense lawyer, Ferdinand Peters, denies that her complaint contained those accusations. A copy of the complaint furnished by Peters shows no such allegations.

Anne McCandless, a JACC member, is being sued for a series of emails that she sent to Ben Myers in which she questioned certain JACC expenditures.

By the numbers: Race and population in Jordan

Total population of Jordan: 7737
White: 5000 (64 %)
Black: 2017 (26%)
American Indian: 424 (5%)
Asian/Pacific Islander: 208 (3%)
Hispanic (3%)

Total population of Jordan: 9149
White alone: 2152 (24%)
Black or African American Alone 4526 (44%)
American Indian and Alaska Native alone: 167 (2%)
Asian, Native Hawaiian, or other Pacific Islander alone: 1584 (17%)
Some other race alone: 177 (2%)
Population of two or more races: 543 (6%)
Hispanic or Latino: 386 (4%)
*Rounding off numbers results in total of more than 100%.
Numbers from 1990 Minneapolis census figures and 2000 Minneapolis census figures.

Myers said that the only way the defendants could assault him was to damage his reputation. “You don’t like my opinion? Fine. But don’t assault my position, my family. Don’t accuse me of not being loyal. If you think there’s been misappropriation, that’s fine. Don’t call me a thief.”

Race may be a factor in the case. Wagner, Goodmundson and McCandless are all white. Myers and Moore are black. According to Titus, when she and others were raising concerns about Moore’s salary, “We were told we were just being racists. It kinda got nasty.”

Myers said while the neighborhood used to be a Jewish neighborhood, it now is a racially mixed one. Myers said the people that are complaining are “white, older middle class residents.” Myers said “They didn’t complain four years ago when the board was white, and they were doing the same things.”

Another factor is length of time in the community. Moore, though he grew up on the North side, doesn’t currently live in Jordan. Myers moved there three years ago. McCandless and Wagner have both lived in Jordan for more than 20 years, and Goodmundson has lived there since 2002.

Judge William Howard said in the December 3 hearing on the defamation suit that he needs to decide whether to consider Myers a “limited public figure,” which would make a libel suit much more difficult. He is also considering the defense’s assertion that the defendants are protected by Minnesota’s anti-strategic law against public participation (SLAPP) statute, which protects free speech. Howard will make a decision on the case in 90 days.

Sheila Regan is a theater artist based in Minneapolis. When not performing or writing, she serves as educational coordinator for Teatro del Pueblo.