When southeastern San Diego neighborhood leaders created a nonprofit in 1994 to unite the community and strengthen its influence in public affairs, it started small. They discussed activities in cramped back rooms or around a table at a nearby Denny’s.

The nonprofit didn’t have an office or much money, but it was effective. Called the Coalition of Neighborhood Councils, it rallied support for business redevelopment, raised awareness of gang crime and attracted money to the area for quality of life issues like potholes and beautification.

“Acting as an individual community, it seemed difficult to do that, but when you put all of them together, it became much easier to get the City Council’s attention and the Police Department’s attention,” said Guy Preuss, one of the nonprofit’s original board members.

The nonprofit officially represents 23 community councils in southeastern San Diego, and unofficially, the entire region. By representing a larger population of residents, it became a notable player in city politics, attracting government officials to report to its meetings. It occupies the city-owned Tubman-Chavez Center, a historical landmark of the area’s diverse culture near its core.

In recent years, though, residents have bitterly debated whether the nonprofit has drifted from its original mission empowering the community councils to instead being a social service organization. It used to emphasize rallying the councils to action — training them on outreach or offering resources to solve problems. More recently, it has won grants to provide more services to the community, such as classes for high school dropouts and a nutritional meals program.

But providing social services is not the point of the CNC, its critics say. It’s supposed to buttress the political influence of small, poorer neighborhoods that don’t have the resources of wealthier residents across town.

Barbara Howard, chairwoman of the nonprofit’s board of directors, did not return numerous e-mail and phone messages seeking comment about the organization. But numerous neighborhood leaders familiar with the nonprofit painted a similar picture.

“This could be considered growing pains,” said City Councilman Tony Young, who represents the same neighborhoods served by the CNC.

Between 2006 and 2008, tax records show the nonprofit nearly tripled its budget to $1.4 million. But building that financial strength also pitted the nonprofit against other social service organizations in the same area. That caused friction and fueled animosity toward the CNC, community leaders say. Some residents are calling for the nonprofit’s leadership to resign and others want sweeping reform to limit their power.

“The CNC was designed to be a central clearinghouse for all the neighborhood councils. And that is so far from what they’re doing now,” said Barry Pollard, the recently defeated City Council candidate and president of the Valencia Park Town Council.

Pollard and others put part of the blame on the Jacobs Foundation, a prominent nonprofit in southeastern San Diego founded by the philanthropists Joseph and Violet Jacobs. It’s been a major donor and partners with the CNC on numerous programs, though it’s scaled back donations in recent years. Over the past three years, it gave the nonprofit about $300,000, spokeswoman Tracey Bryan said.

When asked about the tensions at the CNC today, Bryan said, “We absolutely do wish them the best,” and declined further comment.

Part of the recent turmoil at CNC became public when the board of directors fired its executive director, Dwayne Crenshaw, in December for reasons that are still unclear. Crenshaw sued the nonprofit, alleging he was fired for being gay.

To the organization’s critics, Crenshaw’s firing represented another decision the board of directors made without consulting the general membership that led to divisiveness in the community. Some members demanded the board mend its ties with Crenshaw, who oversaw the organization’s financial and political growth. The board refused and has not replaced him.

Crenshaw and the CNC settled the lawsuit last week, attorneys for both confirmed. They declined to say how much money Crenshaw would be given, citing the settlement’s confidentiality. The CNC admitted no wrongdoing and Crenshaw promised to not speak poorly of the nonprofit.

“Basically we decided to buy our peace and walk away,” CNC attorney Dick Semerdjian said.

Crenshaw’s attorney, Josh Gruenberg, declined a request to interview Crenshaw about the lawsuit and the ongoing mission of the CNC. Having Crenshaw speak critically of the nonprofit, Gruenberg said, could be considered a violation of the settlement.

Ardelle Matthews, a former board member, called Crenshaw’s departure the crescendo of tensions at the CNC.

“With Dwayne’s dismissal, it made me aware that there was a problem in existence,” she said. “I can see the division widening rather than coming together. Where I am and where I sit, I’m not partial to one side or the other. I just want my community to get together peacefully.”

At membership meetings, residents and the board have erupted into shouting matches or personal attacks, members said. And local residents are worried the strife will affect the organization’s services, its long-term reputation and, overall, its viability to continue as a unifying force in the community.

“It got really ugly, and it’s going to get worse,” Pollard said. “If I had a crystal ball, the CNC as we see it will be a non-entity.”

In recent months, residents have pushed against the board of directors to reassert the nonprofit’s grassroots mission and limit its executive power. In February, the board created a volunteer task force to explain tensions in the community and how to address them. Among the concerns listed were mission drift and a lack of transparency and accountability.

Preuss, the former board member, became part of a committee to revise the nonprofit’s by-laws and its recommendations, if approved, would give community members the right to comment at board meetings, allow them access to documents in the same manner as the state’s public records law and set stricter standards for holding meetings in the same manner as the state’s public meetings law.

Another group of residents is urging a general membership vote later this month to remove Howard and other executive staff. Gregory Morales, an Encanto resident, is leading the effort, but did not return messages seeking comment. It’s unclear whether the vote will happen since the CNC has not posted an agenda for the meeting on its website and did not return messages.

Betty Brown, a former board member from Paradise Hills, said she hasn’t been involved with CNC recently, but has heard what people are saying about it.

“It has cost us our reputation and that’s embarrassing,” she said. “It’s a good organization in our community, and I don’t want to lose it.”

Please contact Keegan Kyle directly at keegan.kyle@voiceofsandiego.org and follow him on Twitter: twitter.com/keegankyle.

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