By Mark Scheer
Niagara Gazette — Two members of the board of directors for the long-shuttered Niagara Community Center have filed a lawsuit in an effort to dissolve the organization currently responsible for the building.
The lawsuit, filed last week in State Supreme Court in Niagara County, asks the court to formally disband the Niagara Community Center Association of Niagara Falls, New York, Inc. on the grounds that the “directors in control of the corporation have wasted the corporate assets.”
The plaintiffs in the case, Garden Avenue resident Charles Searcy and 21st Street resident Patricia Alston, are both identified in the legal filing as members of the organization’s board. In their lawsuit, filed on their behalf by Niagara Falls attorney Robert Restaino, the pair contend that they have “not been allowed to participate in decision-making for the corporation.”
“Apparently, they are going to just try to get this association to do what it should be doing at least in terms of the its certificate of incorporation and its purpose,” Restaino said, referring to his clients’ motivation for filing the lawsuit.
The suit contends that six other members of the association’s board “have not allowed any efforts to improve the condition” of the Centre Avenue building and have “resisted directors and other community members, interested in the purpose of the corporation and the usefulness of the property, from advancing plans for remediation and utilization.” The plaintiffs maintain that as a result of the lack of programs inside the building and maintenance of the structure, the association’s primary asset - the building itself - has been devalued.
The community center, located at 1364 Centre Ave., traces its roots in Niagara Falls back to 1928 and is one of the city’s first institutions organized by members of the local African American community. It served for many years as a recreational and educational site for children and residents living in the north end. It closed in 2008 amid the loss of programming funds from a pair of support organizations, including the United Way of Niagara and the Niagara County Youth Bureau.
In the years since, some community members have lobbied the association’s board to either find the means to re-open the center or step aside to allow others to assume positions on the board.
The association’s board is selected by community center members who pay annual membership dues. The lawsuit identifies six board members as defendants, including President Shirley Hamilton, former city public works director Paul Colangelo, Faaedaa Muhammad, Donna Wilson-Harris and Keith Renford. Also named as a defendant is New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman.
The lawsuit calls on the court to dissolve the existing board on the grounds that the directors are “so divided” that the votes required for action “cannot be obtained.” The claim suggests directors of NCCA have “rarely” called or held meetings and that directors are “not uniformly noticed for meetings” and no minutes are taken from sessions that have been held.
“As a consequence no action can be taken to address the vacant building of the corporation, obtain assistance from other community members and advance the purpose of the corporation as the current board is so divided that no agreement can be made,” the lawsuit reads.
A third cause of action in the claim seeks dissolution based on the grounds that the corporation is “no longer able to carry out its purpose,” which includes, among other things, the promotion of social, recreational, health and cultural activities and programs for young people, with an emphasis on the community’s African American population.
The lawsuit alleges that the corporation has not provided appropriate programs or services and has not filed complete disclosure statements with the state attorney general’s office for several years as is required in connection with the activities of non-profit organizations like the association.
Hamilton said she had not yet seen the lawsuit and did not know it had been filed until reached by a reporter on Monday. She acknowledged that Searcy remains a member of the board, but questioned Alston’s standing with the organization. She said Alston may no longer have standing as a board member as she has not attended recent meetings, nor has she kept current with dues for membership.
“As far as I’m concerned, she has no standing,” Hamilton said.
As for the community center itself, Hamilton said board members met just last week and are still in the process of securing the funds necessary to re-open the building and run it in a more efficient manner by installing a more energy efficient heating and cooling system.
“We’re just trying to get funding to green it,” Hamilton said.