Havre Daily News
An 11-county anti-poverty organization based in Havre has hit a snag just as it's getting started. In the last month, the board of Opportunity Link, formerly Northcentral Montana Community Ventures Coalition, has fired its executive director, and two board members have resigned.
The unrest has prompted concerns at the Northwest Area Foundation, which pledged $12 million to fund the group. But any discussion of the Northwest Area Foundation pulling its funding would be "premature," spokeswoman Sylvia Burgos-Toftness said.
Opportunity Link was organized after more than three years of planning. A year and a half ago, after competing with communities across the Northwest, it received a pledge of $12 million in seed money from the Northwest Area Foundation, a charitable organization begun by the descendants of railroad magnate James J. Hill.
Opportunity Link has plans to raise more money in order to carry out about $75 million worth of economic development projects in a 10-year period. It serves an area from Malta to Browning.
A month ago, the board fired Angie Main, a Hays native who has served as executive director since the end of last year, said state Rep. Jonathan Windy Boy, an Opportunity Link board member and Rocky Boy's Indian Reservation tribal council member. Windy Boy would not comment on the board's reasons.
Another board member, Caroline Brown, who represents the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation, said she thinks Main was fired because of racism. She also wouldn't comment on the reasons cited by the board.
"Those are confidential and they're personnel issues," Brown said of the reasons stated by board members at the April 11 meeting when the decision was made. "They were stating their concern that they didn't think she was doing her job and I countered that with all I think she had done."
Brown said she thinks racism accounted for the decision because several board members had not wanted to interview Main for the job even though she was one of the most qualified applicants.
"This is my opinion and I stick by it," Brown said. "I sense racism is alive and well in our organization."
Board co-chair and Cascade County Commissioner Peggy Beltrone declined to comment on the board's decision.
Board co-chair George Heavyrunner, who represented the Blackfeet Indian Nation on the board, and Bear Paw Development Corp. planner Craig Erickson both resigned last month.
Heavyrunner said in an interview Thursday that he resigned so he could have more time to devote to his job with the Blackfeet Indian Nation. Erickson could not be reached for comment.
At the end of April, Windy Boy said, he attended a board meeting in which Brown asked the board to reinstate Main. Windy Boy said he was the only board member who agreed. Four others disagreed.
The board normally has 10 members, but was down to eight by that time.
Officials from the Fort Belknap, Rocky Boy and Blackfeet tribes will meet in Havre in mid-May to discuss problems within the organization, Brown said.
Northwest Area Foundation spokeswoman Burgos-Toftness said hiccups in the beginning of an undertaking like Opportunity Link are to be expected. The foundation's main purpose is to organize coalitions among a broad community, bringing together people of different backgrounds and asking them to come up with a single plan.
"That remains not only a goal but a requirement," Burgos-Toftness said.
"We want it very much to succeed and as a partner we are concerned," she added. "If we are asked for help by the partnership, we will provide assistance. This community was funded because it was able to bring different groups together to develop a single strategic plan. ... We also know that this is a difficult process. ... It's pretty much grass-roots democracy in action. That is not always an easy thing to accomplish. It never has been."
"It's a challenge when you have such a venture like this," he said. "There's no road map to follow, working from a cross-section of people from Malta to Browning. ... If there's any bumps on the road I think it's simply because of the organization being new, just like any organization."
Brown said she thinks the problems are deeper than that. "As far as I know, the tribes are all in agreement that this shouldn't be happening," she said.
In the late April meeting in which Brown asked the board to reinstate Main, "The two Native Americans voted for it and the non-Natives voted against it," she said.
Main could not be reached for comment.
Beltrone said today she thinks that Opportunity Link still has a future.