St. Paul Urban League’s leadership blamed for agency’s decline


Several former staff members of the St. Paul Urban League (SPUL) have accused the organization of failing to meet the needs of that city’s Black community because of its current leadership. Former employees Lisa Wright and Roslyn Pedracine both have said that they first voiced their concerns to SPUL Executive Director Scott Selmer, then to board members, and later helped to draft and send a letter to the National Urban League requesting help.

In separate interviews with the MSR this summer, Wright and Pedracine, who were hired within a month of each other and later were laid off virtually at the same time, both claim that their dismissals were based on retaliation. Wright was hired in April 2008 to supervise the SPUL housing program. Pedracine was hired as an executive assistant a month later.

According to Pedracine, she began having problems with Selmer last summer “when he started to realize that I did have a backbone and I wasn’t going to just do things because I was ordered to do them. I was asked [by Selmer] to write reports for programs that we were receiving funds for that I knew we weren’t running.”

Last fall, several SPUL staffers “met together outside of the office and voiced our concerns and put them down on paper,” said Pedracine. That meeting “made me realize that if things don’t change, I can’t be here for much longer,” she surmised.

Then late last year, after she had returned from an out-of-town staff development session, “Some things happened while I was away, and I tried to ask about it,” Pedracine recalled. “It turned into me being yelled at [by Selmer].
I was told to leave and wasn’t given a reason. I said, ‘I need a reason for why
I am being told to leave,’ and he said, ‘I don’t have to give you a reason – just leave.'”

Wright alleged that Selmer has mismanaged the SPUL. During her time there, she said, his management style greatly concerned her: “He either cross-examines you, browbeats you, or fires you. He does not know how to communicate because he thinks he can bully everybody into doing what he wants them to do,” she said

When Selmer told her last December that she was being laid off because of financial reasons, Wright argues, “It’s because I called the National Urban League office and he [Selmer] found out.” Getting laid off didn’t totally surprised her, she said. “I actually was expecting him to fire me, but he knew that he couldn’t do it without a fuss.”

While still employed at SPUL, the two women joined 19 other former employees, former board members, and community residents in signing a letter that was sent to the Marc H. Morial, president and CEO of the National Urban League (NUL) in New York. The letter expressed concern over the organization’s future, criticized Selmer’s “lack of management skills” and “general demeanor of arrogance,” and asked the national office “to convene a special meeting, here in St. Paul” to address these concerns.

The MSR received a copy of the letter and contacted the New York office several times for comment. However, despite assurances from NUL staffers, our calls have not yet been returned.

Kay Cooper, a former SPUL housing supportive services counselor who was hired last September, said she was let go in January “for not following [Selmer’s] rule… One of my clients contacted Section 8 because the trash wasn’t being picked up [at one of the SPUL-owned rental properties],” she recalled.

“I was called into Scott’s office, and he informed me that one of the clients reported him to Section 8. He told me that I needed to contact my client – and I didn’t know who did this – and tell them not to go to Section 8. I told him that they have a right to report this, and he screamed at me, ‘This is a direct order – you need to do this.’ I said I would not.”

Cooper said that in her work for other nonprofit organizations “I have never seen an organization [such as SPUL] run like this. That’s my frustration – it’s not about going after Scott or the board, but someone needs to be held accountable for the community.”

MSR sat down last week with Selmer and the organization’s board chair, St. Paul Police Sergeant Ray Jefferson, to get their responses to the letter and other criticism of the organization’s current leadership.

Selmer quickly challenged the validity of negative claims, first stating that there were no statements in the letter that could be supported by facts.

Although the letter bears 21 signatures, Selmer pointed out that six of them were previous employees. He believes that the accusations are mainly from one or two disgruntled employees who have gotten others to rally around their cause. Selmer said that to his knowledge there has been no response to the letter thus far from the national office.

To any specific complaints that ex-employees have regarding his management style and the way he has conducted himself as CEO, Selmer said, “If I had to, in a court of law, refute what they are saying, I could do it very easily, and also undermine their credibility; [but]…that doesn’t get us anywhere.”

He did, however, describe the work ethic of previous employees when he first became CEO. There is ample evidence, Selmer believes, to substantiate that the Urban League’s troubles began long before his arrival.

“We had [a] person that was running the supportive housing for [those living with] HIV…that we provide,” he said. “That person had been…accused of fraud, and HUD had demanded her resignation. She was still here…trying to run the program.”

The CEO said that he regrets that employees were released due to the organization’s inability to pay them. However, he also said that some employees lost their jobs because they were unproductive or incompetent.

Selmer provided photographs of what he said each of the SPUL offices looked like when he first became CEO, showing boxes stacked three to four high overflowing with documents. “When I walked through the front door,” he said, “this is what the place looked like inside. This is when there was money flowing through here.”

Jefferson said that besides former employees, he believes criticism of Selmer is based on the fact that he is viewed as an outsider: “Whenever you bring in someone from the outside,” the SPUL board chair said, “you have problems.”

Although Selmer said he is more than willing to address community concerns, he added that there is a danger in continuing to revisit problems he views as those of the previous leadership. “How are we going to create confidence in this organization and get people to give us a second look if we have people still distorting what the truth really is?”

Both Jefferson and Selmer challenged concerned community members to visit the St. Paul Urban League and draw their own conclusion.

Wright still contends that unless changes are made, especially changes in leadership, SPUL will not succeed. “I really do hope someone can step in and restore the agency to what it was,” she said. “It’s needed in the community.”

“I think there is a lot of potential with the St. Paul Urban League, but it is not being tapped into,” said Pedracine.

Nonetheless, Selmer is convinced that overall the community still embraces the St. Paul Urban League, substantiating this claim with several sheets of petitions he said were signed by community members. He feels that rehashing the organization’s past problems will only prevent them from moving forward.

“Our concern is and always has been the mission: the empowerment socially and economically of African Americans,” Selmer said. “And we’re doing everything that we can to get there.”

Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to challman@spokesman-record Vickie Evans-Nash welcomes reader responses to