Ian Mitchell, a former board member for Whispers of Hope, directs the election of a new board for the charity at its annual general meeting on May 15. (Jensen Edwards/Grand Forks Gazette)

Whispers of Hope AGM hears concerns about transparency

One member from Citizens for a Better Grand Forks elected to charity’s board

A motion to remove a director, procedural confusion and a tie-break vote all stretched the time it took for Whispers of Hope Benevolence Association members to settle on a new board of directors at the charity’s 2019 annual general meeting last Wednesday.

Complicating the process was the fact that many of the roughly 50 members present were newly registered, people there to represent voices from an opposition community group — Citizens for a Better Grand Forks — who came to have their say in the organization’s future.

Dianna Darling and other members of the group stood outside the Legion before the meeting, handing out papers calling a recently introduced “membership agreement” from Whispers of Hope an “attempt to subvert” members’ rights.

The point of the agreement, Whispers of Hope co-ordinator Melissa Shulga said, was to “bring forth information and help people understand what they were agreeing to by being a member.

“This is the first time we have had people interested in membership that seemingly do not agree with our purpose, mission, or mandate,” she added.

After some confusion at the sign-in desk, Whispers of Hope members were not compelled to sign the agreement in order to participate in the meeting.

Of the 12 people nominated to fill seven vacant spots on the Whispers of Hope board of directors, at least five were affiliated with Citizens for a Better Grand Forks, or had previously expressed opposition to decisions made by the charity. Despite the divide, many of the candidates from the opposition group expressed an ultimate desire to “see the community come together as one,” something echoed by current Whispers of Hope board members as well.

In the end, only one person affiliated with Citizens for a Better Grand Forks, Pamela Kennedy, was elected to the board. She won in a tie-break show-of-hands vote after about half of the meeting’s attendees had already left.

“I’m here to help try to close the gap, build transparency, and get everyone talking on the same page,” Kennedy said earlier to the crowd in her appeal for votes.

Kennedy will join current directors Claudette Parisien, Louise Heck, Tammy Battersby and Kim McLellan, and newly elected directors Duane Foster, Terri Taggert, Jo White and Val Rilkoff on the charity’s executive for 2019.

Shulga said that she hopes Kennedy’s addition to the board will help iron out accusations of a lack of transparency in Whispers of Hope’s decision making.

“They definitely seemed to keep reiterating the word, ‘transparency,’ [at the AGM],” Shulga said of the representatives for Citizens for a Better Grand Forks.

“I’m hoping that we can work them to clarify what it is that they feel they’re missing out on,” she said.

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Just before getting to the nominations section of the agenda, Ann Palmer, with Citizens for a Better Grand Forks, threw the meeting’s first twist by proposing a motion to remove Whispers director-at-large Parisien from the organization’s board, citing “bullying, name-calling, and all-around disrespect,” inappropriate language and Facebook comments as the reason to remove the director.

Shulga was quick to defend Parisien, saying that the board member has come forward previously to say, “‘I screwed up, I let my mouth get carried away online.’” Shulga said that Parisien has been reassured by the organization that “she represents herself online, more so than she represents the directors.”

“It would be a big disservice to this board to not have somebody like Claudette represented,” Shulga added.

Parisien, who was not up for election on Wednesday night, holds a two-year term on the Whispers board, which expires in May 2020.

Because no one from the Whispers of Hope board was aware of the motion before Wednesday night, it was determined that any discussion on removing board members would be deferred to the next board meeting, which was held on May 22.

Highlights from annual report

• Whispers of Hope’s ability to deliver services was severely hurt by last year’s flood. Where in 2017 the charity provided an average of 55.7 meals per month between July and December, it was only handing out an average of 3.5 meals in the same period for 2018.

• The flood also destroyed more than $10,000 in kitchen supplies, that Whispers of Hope had stored in containers within the flood zone.

• After the city terminated their agreement to lease space to Whispers of Hope in 2017, they found a new space for their thrift store on 3rd street, costing them thousands more in rent fees for 2018 ($14,813.75, compared to $2,053.09 paid the year before).

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