11 of 15 Lunch Break trustees removed Charges of racism, theft, incompetence surface at Red Bank soup kitchen

Staff Writer

By john burton

11 of 15 Lunch Break trustees removed
Charges of racism, theft, incompetence surface at Red Bank soup kitchen

JEFF HUNTLEY  Lunch Break on Bergen Place in Red Bank is going through a crisis as long-term board members were ousted. JEFF HUNTLEY Lunch Break on Bergen Place in Red Bank is going through a crisis as long-term board members were ousted.

Allegations of racism, ageism, malfeasance were met with counter charges of incompetence and pilfering, as an insurgent group of members voted to oust many of the sitting board of trustees of Lunch Break.

At a meeting held on Nov. 1 about 100 members of the nonprofit organization voted to remove 11 of the 15 members of the board of trustees, stating those trustees were attempting to usurp the authority of the long-standing director and remove a black employee, as well as failing to follow the mission of the Bergen Place soup kitchen and food pantry.

Sister Alice Kelsey, a Roman Catholic nun and board member, who helped orchestrate the removal of the board members, said that the board had been operating secretively and illegally, and was not following the standards in Robert’s Rules of Order. She said the board was instituting policies and procedures which violated the intent and spirit of the facility, and were in fact, intrinsically racist.

"They — the board — decided those who were worthy and those who weren’t worthy," Kelsey said. "They wanted to be the arbiters of who deserved."

Kelsey said she opposed and was offended by some of the parameters set by the board.

In addition to serving hot lunches daily, Lunch Break provides groceries and clothing for its members and those seeking assistance in the community. Its policy, according to Kelsey, has been to provide food and help for any who ask, with no questions asked.

Recently, the board had instituted a policy of having people sign for what they receive, saying it was a way of overseeing the operation. The board also installed a video camera, at a cost of $3,000, to monitor the rear door. Those actions were taken because items, such as utensils and dishes, a lawn mower, and other appliances were being taken and sold, according to ousted board members who were contacted.

Kelsey said those allegations were unsubstantiated and scurrilous. She said board imposed the rules and put in the camera to discourage those the board deemed undeserving of assistance.

"What a waste of money," she said.

In one instance, Kelsey said, someone wanted to donate a used television but was told Lunch Break didn’t accept appliances as donations. A volunteer asked if she could have it, and was given the TV.

Kelsey said a board member later accused the volunteer of stealing the TV.

Kelsey also said the trustees were trying to remove the facility’s director, Norma Todd, because of her age.

Todd, who recently turned 80, has been the director since Lunch Break was established in 1983.

"We have a perfectly good director with a perfectly good mind," Kelsey said. "Norma is in marvelous, marvelous condition. She is on top of everything."

Todd said she was targeted because of her age, and asserted that she is capable of carrying out her responsibilities as director.

When asked if she knew what organization’s annual budget was, she said she did not know. She also said she did not know how many members there are or what is required to become a member of Lunch Break. She could not provide the names of the former board of trustees who were removed or the new members who were voted in a week prior.

The board also wanted to fire Katherine Couslar, the facility’s director of pantry, one of the five paid employees.

Couslar said she has been with Lunch Break for 10 years and said she was fired because she is black.

"They fired me, saying it was for lack of work," Couslar said. "But that’s not the reason."

Couslar was reinstated by the new board.

Prior to the special meeting of Lunch Break’s members at which the 11 trustees were voted out, Kelsey had been actively recruiting new members to garner enough votes to remove the trustees.

To curtail her efforts, she said, the board had amended the bylaws to restrict membership to the greater Red Bank area and about a dozen of the surrounding towns, including Tinton Falls, Holmdel, Hazlet, parts of Middletown and the Bayshore area, Rumson, and Sea Bright; and to require members to volunteer five hours a month for any four of six consecutive months.

This was done, Kelsey said, to disqualify some of those she recruited, and was, in her opinion, illegal, because it did not have the necessary two-thirds vote of the trustees.

"You had to have five documented hours. Many on the board didn’t meet that," she said. "The purpose of the amendment was to exclude the membership."

Prior to the amendment, Kelsey said, the only requirement to be a member was to submit a written request and "donate time, money, or property."

Kelsey said she had signed up about 125 members, some of them outside of the communities named in the amended bylaws, and many of them donating $5 or more to qualify as members.

"They were removed for racism, malfeasance, and other matters of the board," Kelsey said. "These are people who didn’t do their homework regarding Robert’s Rules of Order, regarding the bylaws.

"They just did things that drove me crazy," she said.

Of the 11 board of trustee members voted out, nine were white and two black.

The new board has 17 members, and, according to Kelsey, is more reflective of the community served by Lunch Break.

"The new board is 60 percent black and 40 percent white," Kelsey said.

"We were going in the wrong direction," said Todd. "Our policy is to help everyone if they can be helped."

Direction and policy were not the problems, according to Joseph Walsh, who was serving as board president until voted out recently.

"It was grossly mismanaged," he said. "We wanted to institute safeguards. This is not rocket science. The food comes in the back door, goes through the kitchen and to the people who deserve it."

Walsh said if there was malfeasance, or incompetence, it was on the part of those employed to oversee the facility.

He said he was inundated with stories from volunteers and clients about items being stolen.

Walsh said around last Thanksgiving, more than 28 turkeys were stolen from the facility, causing some at Lunch Break to joke, calling it "Turkeygate."

He said there were many other instances, so the board stepped in and required employees to punch timecards, installed a security camera, required signatures for those receiving groceries, and kept the pantry locked.

He also said the board did want to fire Couslar, not because of her race, but simply because she was not doing the job.

"Does that mean you can’t fire somebody because they’re black or white?" he asked. "When something is being mismanaged as badly as this, and the only excuse they can come up with is racism, God bless ’em.

"This was a hostile corporate takeover, plain and simple," he said.

"I started hearing reports of groceries and other donations not going to the needy. It was going to the greedy," said former board member Robert Wharton.

"About a third of the stuff was being stolen," he said, including his own tools. "You couldn’t lay anything down without having it stolen."

Wharton said he was not voted off the board, but his term had expired.

A member of the board of trustees can serve two consecutive three-year terms.

Wharton also said the ousting of the trustees was illegal because it occurred at a special meeting, not at the annual meeting, which was scheduled to be held the following week.

To remove the trustees, Wharton noted, a two-thirds vote by the members is required.

"It was an illegal ad hoc meeting," he said.

Wharton said he had contacted a lawyer, Jeffrey Gale, of Hazlet, who concurred that the vote was illegal, according to the bylaws. But Wharton said he was disgusted by this experience, after his four years with Lunch Break and was deeply offended by the charges of racism.

He said he had no plans to pursue it any further.

"Why is the establishment of standards racism?" he asked. "It’s a real mess."

William Bennett, who was serving as vice president until he was voted in as president to replace Walsh, said he had no firsthand knowledge of racism.

"I think a lot of it was a personality clash," Bennett said. "Most of it was hearsay or in letters. I haven’t seen it myself."

But the one instance he does point to was the removal of Couslar.

"If the person was white, I don’t think the action would have been taken," he said.