Alliance planned for homeless, hungry Choice for leader angers Food Committee official

May 24, 1997|By Ernest F. Imhoff and John Rivera | Ernest F. Imhoff and John Rivera,SUN STAFF Sun staff writer Marilyn McCraven contributed to this article.

Two nonprofit groups serving Maryland's homeless and hungry will form an alliance Tuesday under one leader -- a move that has caused controversy over his selection.

Robert V. Hess, executive director of Action for the Homeless, a lobbying group with a $700,000 budget, will retain that job and become president and chief executive officer of the Maryland Food Committee, an agency with a $3 million budget operating various programs for low-income Marylanders.

Hess, who has been at the helm of Action for the Homeless since October 1995, said the two groups will maintain separate identities while a committee studies the feasibility of merging, perhaps within a year.

Two day-to-day executives will be hired in the transition period to serve under Hess: a chief operating officer for MFC and a deputy director of Action for the Homeless.

Forming the alliance has already caused controversy. Hess' appointment has angered the Rev. Douglas I. Miles, MFC's program director until his resignation May 2, who had applied for the position awarded to Hess.

Instead, Miles was offered the job of chief operating officer, with what he says are essentially the duties he had before.

Miles -- former co-chairman of the church-based community group Baltimoreans United for Leadership Development -- said he was passed over for the top spot because he is African-American.

"They wanted someone white for the position," Miles said. "I just felt that if this position was based on [political] advocacy that I had far superior advocacy skills than Mr. Hess and that they must be considering something else for the position."

Miles sent a four-page letter last month, detailing his grievances, to Howard M. Weiss, chairman of MFC's board. He said he is considering taking legal action against the organization.

Several political leaders have written letters on Miles' behalf, including Baltimore City Council members Norman A. Handy Sr., Melvin L. Stukes and Keiffer J. Mitchell Jr.; state Dels. Clarence Davis and Salima Siler Marriott, and state Sen. Delores G. Kelley.

In addition, a letter signed by 26 staff members of the Maryland Food Committee was sent in February to the acting executive director, urging Miles' appointment as president of the organization.

Miles also has the support of an MFC board member, the Rev. Marion C. Bascom Sr., former pastor of Douglas Memorial Community Church, a lifelong civil rights leader and an activist in helping the poor.

"If the Sunpaper were to merge with the Dorchester Times on the Eastern Shore, I have serious questions as to whether the publisher of the Dorchester Times would become the publisher of the merger," Bascom said.

Weiss, the board chairman, said the job Miles was offered and had rejected -- chief operating officer of the Maryland Food Committee -- would have given him an increase in salary and responsibility.

"He would have been one of three senior officers of this affiliation," said Weiss, who is chief of the Private Client Group, NationsBank.

The board chose Hess over Miles for the president/CEO position because Hess had experience as an executive director, while Miles did not, Weiss said. The duties of the chief operating officer were more in line with Miles' previous experience as the food committee's program director, he said.

Miles' allegation of racial discrimination is "totally without basis," Weiss said.

"It would have a basis if we threw him out of the organization or we didn't offer him any position, but we offered him a senior position in the organization."

According to the report of a consultant hired by MFC's board to screen candidates, Miles was not recommended for the president/CEO position because of his unwillingness to give up his position as pastor of the 300-member Koinonia Baptist Church in order to devote full attention to the job.

Miles said he told the search committee he would take on an assistant to handle the day-to-day operation of the church, "and that seemed acceptable until it became obvious that they wanted to move in another direction."

Constance F. Row, who has been interim executive director of MFC since July, said she will leave the committee soon for her consulting business, as planned.

"I'm fully supportive of this alliance," said Row, who studied the possibility for her board. "Working together is the bright future for nonprofits."

Weiss said officials of the two agencies began talking about an alliance and possible merger in August. The boards approved the alliance in separate meetings early this month.

Jan Hayden, president of the Action board, said she hopes the alliance will benefit both groups. "We're out there trying to eliminate homelessness and they're out there trying to eliminate hunger, and they sort of go hand in hand," she said. "Many of our clients are the same clients they serve, and if you can centralize what you're doing, that helps those clients."

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