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In 2005, Dwayne Crenshaw, who is vying to become the city councilman for San Diego’s 4th District, became executive director of the nonprofit Coalition of Neighborhood Councils.

When he took over, he says, the coalition had one part-time employee and a $50,000 budget. Over the next four years, the coalition opened a new office at a prominent corner in Emerald Hills, started jobs programs for high-school dropouts and gang-affiliated youth, and gave out free lunches in the summer to neighborhood kids. Between 2006 and 2008, the coalition’s revenues nearly tripled, and eventually grew to almost $1.5 million.

Then it all ended.

A group of eight community members contended that Crenshaw had sexually harassed staff and youth involved in the organization’s programs, had improper relationships with youth in the programs and other allegations. The board fired Crenshaw in late 2009 without publicly stating a reason, and the bedlam surrounding the decision led to temporary restraining orders against him, initiated by board members. He was detained on suspicion of trespassing at his former office.

Crenshaw sued the coalition, claiming he was fired because he is gay. The coalition countersued, claiming harassment.

The allegations against Crenshaw went nowhere, and Crenshaw and the coalition settled their lawsuits. The terms are confidential and neither side admitted any wrongdoing. But Crenshaw intimated he received a healthy payday.

“Let me tell you what I can tell you,” Crenshaw said. “I went to law school and didn’t work. I put $20,000 into my campaign, that’s public record. You could never be compensated for the harm that someone does to your reputation. But with that said, I turned lemons into lemonade. Very sweet lemonade.”

The coalition faced serious financial and organizational problems immediately after Crenshaw’s departure, and remains a shell of its former self today. Crenshaw said he feels terribly about the state of the coalition, but it wasn’t his choice to leave.

“I don’t know that it’s going to be the same ever again,” he said. “I don’t know how you say it being modest or whatever, it was a unique set of circumstances with a unique leadership. Obviously that happens to be me in this case.”

On the campaign trail, Crenshaw contends that his record at the coalition distinguishes him from the eight other candidates running for the seat. But even beyond the messy circumstances surrounding his departure, Crenshaw’s tenure at the coalition was not without struggles.

He had a lengthy fight with state regulators over the organization’s handling of the summer lunch program and some community leaders chafed at the coalition’s quick move from an advocate for southeastern San Diego neighborhoods to a social service organization.

♦♦♦

Six weeks after the coalition’s board fired Crenshaw, a messenger tried to serve Crenshaw with temporary restraining orders filed by board members. Crenshaw, the messenger said in a sworn declaration, refused to take the documents so he tossed them at Crenshaw’s feet, and then tried to leave.

Crenshaw, “who was now following me, shouted in a threatening manner, insults and expletives and that I better not ever throw papers at him,” the messenger said in the declaration. “He then told me he knew people and insinuated he could have me shot and threatened I had ‘better hurry up and get out of here.’ He continued insulting me with expletives. I got in my vehicle and departed while he raged on at me.”

The incident came at the height of the conflict between Crenshaw and the coalition board. Crenshaw wouldn’t address the specifics of the messenger’s claims but said he wasn’t violent. The weight of the coalition’s accusations against him made him irate, he said.

“I had a process server, some goon who was hired to serve me off guard late at night,” Crenshaw said. “I didn’t appreciate it. Yeah, I got angry. That’s all there is to it.”

A judge dropped the restraining orders against him soon after, though Crenshaw’s lawsuit against the coalition continued for the next six months. During that time, the coalition began to show it couldn’t fulfill all its commitments. City grant money was left unspent. The board canceled its federally funded summer food program.

Three times during Crenshaw’s tenure, the California Department of Education, which administered the federal program, cited the coalition for serious deficiencies in its handling of the summer lunches.

In early 2009, the department tried to terminate the coalition from running a summer food program, which at one point handled 40,000 meals a month. The state alleged the coalition didn’t keep food at proper temperatures and didn’t have accurate meal counts. Cockroaches were observed during one site visit.

But Crenshaw appealed the decision and won. An administrative law judge found that the coalition hadn’t complied with federal regulations on meal counts and requirements, but that the state hadn’t proven its most serious claims or given the organization time to correct its problems.

After the ruling, the state kept a close eye on the coalition, issuing serious deficiency letters alleging it didn’t turn in an audit on time or keep adequate records.

Crenshaw said the state preferred public school districts run summer food programs and targeted the coalition after it lost in court. He called the problems the state identified “ticky-tack.”

“If you want to blame me for not counting the cheese right sometimes or the fact that someone at a site didn’t count the kids properly, so be it,” he said. “I did my job. We provided the service very well and I stand by it without reservation.”

The state was simply making sure the coalition was playing by the rules, said Pam Slater, an education department spokeswoman.

“We were not on a witch hunt,” Slater said. “There are laws and regulations you must follow when you serve food to children.”

The issues surrounding the summer food program point to another concern about the coalition, which bubbled up in the aftermath of Crenshaw’s departure: It grew too much too quickly.

The coalition began in the mid-1990s to give a voice to southeastern San Diego communities often neglected by City Hall. Some community leaders contended that the group’s expansion into broader social services under Crenshaw strayed too far from the mission.

The growth also led to infighting, Crenshaw said.

“When you do start to amass that kind of power and influence and resources, people want to fight over it,” he said. “My regret is that I don’t think I brought my board along with me as quickly as we were moving.”

Liam Dillon is a news reporter for Voice of San Diego. He covers how regular people interact with local government. What should he write about next?

Please contact him directly at liam.dillon@voiceofsandiego.org or 619.550.5663.

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Liam Dillon

Liam Dillon was formerly a senior reporter and assistant editor for Voice of San Diego. He led VOSD’s investigations and wrote about how regular people...

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