Shawnee, OK — The Central Oklahoma Community Action Agency is not in crisis, according to Vaughn Clark of the Oklahoma Department of Commerce, but it isn’t thriving either.
Clark is the director of community development for the Department of Commerce and delivered that assessment Tuesday as part of a report that outlined several areas of concern including high turnover, low employee morale and a work environment marked by “paranoia” and “fear.”
COCAA is one of approximately 1,100 community action agencies nationwide that provide services for low-income residents. The agency covers six counties, including Payne, and locally sponsors home weatherization programs, food pantry and clothing voucher programs, Stillwater’s Mission of Hope and the Stillwater Community Health Center.
The Board of Directors includes two representatives from each county. Payne County’s representatives are Aaron Cole and County Commissioner Gloria Hesser. Both Cole and Hesser said they were limited in what they could discuss because of legal issues, but the board will release a public statement with possible changes included within the next 30 days.
“We all want community action to be successful. The motto is to give a helping hand up and not just a hand out,” Hesser said. “We the board are very interested, (are) charged with being sure that all the money is being used correctly and (goes to) the clients.”
COCAA is funded with a mix of private donations and state and federal grants. The Oklahoma Department of Commerce, which is one of those funding agencies, brought in executive directors from four other community action agencies to assess COCAA’s management amid lawsuits filed by current and former employees.
The report shows that both the Department of Commerce and other funding sources had concerns about the agency’s management.
After interviewing a number of employees, the assessment team drafted a report that outlined its concerns and recommendations. The focus of the report was on a “lack of serious attention (given) to complaints (of employees)” and a “lack of follow-through (by management) to make needed, significant changes.”
“Staff expressed concern that there are not clear procedures for employees to grieve against higher level employees without fear of repercussion,” the report states. “Staff appeared to be paranoid about voicing complaints (because of) an atmosphere of fearfulness (and) threats of being fired.”
The report also described COCAA Executive Director Clarissa Sydnor as “overly aggressive” and said she “has a tendency to over-react to situations without seeking guidance.”
Clark and the assessment team also said that while the agency’s Board of Directors was unaware of the situation, there had been “red flags” that should have been investigated.
“The board needs to better understand and appreciate a ‘whistleblower’ policy,” the report states.
The report goes on to say that the board needs to have more oversight when it receives a monitoring report.
“Board does not appear to understand what a ‘bad’ monitoring report entails,” the assessment report states.
Clark outlined several recommendations by the report including outlining the grievance policy clearly and observing how other community action agencies were run. He did stress that the assessment team didn’t feel that the situation was as bad as some other cases.
“They were pleasantly surprised that things were not worse,” Clark said.
Clark and other representatives of the Department of Commerce didn’t say they were interested in pulling any of the agency’s funding, but one state lawmaker at Tuesday’s meeting said that he was.
Rep. Aaron Stiles, R-Norman, said he respects the work COCAA does and was even the keynote speaker at the agency’s annual convention, but he has deep concerns about COCAA’s management.
Stiles, whose wife has done work with COCAA as a Norman-area Realtor, said he was made aware of issues at the agency including sexual harassment and possible misuse of funds.
“I believe that this board or members of the board have shown a complete lack of accountability,” Stiles said.
He added that COCAA receives significant taxpayer dollars, and he felt money was being wasted on employee trips and defending lawsuits that could have been better used helping the homeless and needy.
“This is a purely legislative matter for me. (COCAA does) a significant amount of work in my district. It’s good work, and I think it could be better,” Stiles said. “But this organization is going to be in desperate times very soon if there are not steps taken.”
Stiles said he spoke to a board member prior to being elected about a sexual harassment issue he was told about, and he said the board member hung up on him. The board’s ignoring of the issue, Stiles said, reminded him of administrators at Penn State during the university’s recent child abuse scandal.
“There were members of the board who were aware of problems — specifically sexual harassment issues — and those members did nothing,” he said.
Stiles said he would try to use his legislative powers to convince the Oklahoma Department of Commerce and other funders to use their financial sway to force changes.
“If that means temporarily suspending their state funds, so be it,” he said.
At the very least, Stiles said, some board members should be replaced.
Ricky O'Bannon writes for the Stillwater NewsPress.