Durham activist Victoria Peterson this week likened an emergency meeting of the Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People to oust Chairwoman Lavonia Allison to coups unfolding in the Middle East.
That might be a slight exaggeration. Just as some critics have painted Allison as a small-scale dictator, Peterson is known for her combustible, and often erroneous, rhetoric. Regardless, Peterson has joined with former city council candidate Darius Little to call a meeting 7 p.m. Thursday at White Rock Baptist Church. The duo and its supporters say they plan to vote out Allison and appoint a temporary chair to fill the current term, which expires in December.
Among their chief complaints: Allison has not and will not provide the organization's financial information to committee members. State campaign finance reports also show poor recordkeeping from the committee's political action arm, including belated filings on contributions it has received and occasional bank fees for insufficient funds.
"We have an organization that's going to die on the vine if we do not quickly put in new leadership," Peterson said. "There are people in this community that would love to see the downfall of the committee, and that is not going to happen."
Allison, 80, has led the organization for 13 years. She has been long criticized for her stranglehold on the committee's activities, to the exclusion of other members, and for a general lack of transparency.
The committee has historically been the most influential activist group in Durham, earning national renown in its 75 years for civil rights work, support of public education and its outreach efforts during elections, which have driven thousands of voters to the polls in past elections.
But for several years, political observers have been predicting the downfall of the committee due to Allison's rule.
Durham attorney Keith Bishop, who has been treasurer for the organization's political dealings since 2005, has failed several times to file timely reports on contributions to the PAC. In 2008, he filed reports for contributions and spending that occurred two and three years before, according to records with the N.C. Board of Elections. Last year, he amended a report that had been filed 20 months earlier.
Bishop did not return calls from the Indy seeking comment.
Late last summer, the state Board of Elections penalized the committee $750 for submitting two finance reports late. Still, the PAC continues to receive thousands of dollars in contributions from members and political candidates. The group received more than $19,000 in the 2009–10 election cycle alone, including $1,500 from Sheriff Worth Hill, $6,140 from the N.C. Democratic Party and $8,000 from the committee for Congressman David Price.
In a Feb. 18 complaint to the Durham committee's parliamentarian, Peterson said that Allison has also failed to hold several regular meetings of the committee, and although members elected new subcommittee leaders in January, Allison has failed to call a meeting for them to be sworn in.
When asked about the finances at a meeting last fall, Allison said any member wanting financial information could make an appointment to visit the committee's office in downtown Durham.
Peterson said she called Allison repeatedly for nearly a month but received no response, so she visited the office in person. Allison was there, but she had the door locked and refused to let Peterson in, she said.
"I talked to her through the glass," Peterson said. "She said I was bothering her, harassing her." Then Allison picked up the phone and said she was calling police, Peterson said, so she left.
"I'm always concerned when people aren't transparent about the finances of a public institution, be it a church, a nonprofit. If you don't have anything to hide, you should be transparent," said Keith Corbett, a former committee treasurer who in 2009 said he was considering running against Allison for chair.
Members report that the number of active participants has dropped dramatically (membership information is not public), due in part to infighting and petty politics. The group also has failed to attract younger generations of politically minded Durhamites.
But Allison, a former professor at N.C. Central University, is widely respected for her contributions to higher education, state and local policy and civil rights. Few have dared to publicly challenge her—at least until her most recent committee election.
In December 2009, when Allison was seeking her seventh term as chairwoman, several committee members campaigned to unseat her, including some elected officials who had longstanding personal friendships with her. They pushed for the election of East Durham minister and Durham Planning Commissioner Melvin Whitley as the new chairperson
Although more than 200 people showed up at White Rock Baptist Church to vote at the election meeting, Allison deemed that only 25 members had attended enough meetings to be eligible to vote. According to participants, the election results somehow amounted to only 15 votes for Allison and three for Whitley. (Media were not permitted to enter the meeting.) Several public officials, including city council members Cora Cole-McFadden and Howard Clement, openly supported Whitley.
Many members share concerns about the committee's lack of transparency, but they also question whether Peterson and Little will find a strong following. Both Peterson and Little are failed candidates for public office who have been pushed to the political fringes in recent years.
Little, who ran for city council in 2009, has faced public scrutiny for bouncing checks while he was attending college, and more recently, for court findings that he misrepresented himself as a lawyer and took money for services he didn't provide. Before Little even pleaded guilty to a related misdemeanor charge, the indiscretion cost him a spot on the Durham Planning Commission.
Peterson, an activist in Durham for more than 20 years, has run several unsuccessful campaigns for city, county and state-level offices. She can usually be found at public meetings with questions in hand about government spending, budget items and incentives, but she also often uses questionable information in making her arguments. Many say she lacks the credibility to garner a strong following to Thursday's meeting.
There's also a chance that the meeting of committee members Thursday won't count under the group's rules. The committee's constitution and bylaws say that only the chair may call a special meeting. (This is according to a copy of the document last amended in 1984. Members of the committee have declined to provide more recent information to the Indy.)
Reached by phone Monday, Allison declined to answer questions about the committee, saying she was busy. When pressed about Thursday's meeting, she replied, "The Durham committee isn't having any meeting on Thursday."