Front Porch Pensacola
Front Porch Pensacola (formally the Greater Pensacola Front Porch, Inc.) is the local arm of a state agency, The Governor's Front Porch Florida Initiative, that was created by Governor Jeb Bush in 1999 "as a means to rebuild distressed communities [and] revitalize underserved communities." It operates under the State of Florida's Office of Urban Opportunity with a mission to eliminate urban blight. The Pensacola branch was established in October, 1999 through the efforts of Johnny Crawford.
At the local level, the organization is administered by a community liaison (a paid, part-time position) and a volunteer council. There is presumably no current community liaison; until May 2, 2007, Thelma Manley served in that capacity, until she was fired after coming under investigation for allegedly paying organization funds to herself. Manley replaced Crawford in 2000 when he was ousted for excluding community input and soliciting funds without direction from the state office. A 2006 audit found irregularities with the organizations finances and chided the leadership for failing to keep better records of "its bank reconciliations, expenditures, current liabilities, fixed assets and grant agreements for the period ending June 30, 2006." In 2007 controversy (see below), in which two council members resigned, stemmed from Manley's alleged mismanagement of organization funds for personal benefit.
On March 18, 2007, the Pensacola News Journal reported that council chairperson Michelle MacNeil and vice-chair/treasurer Melanie Nichols were threatening resignation following claims that Manley had made payments from the group's budget, benefitting herself and family members, without council authorization. In a draft of her resignation letter obtained by the newspaper, MacNeil (who is white) said that her concern regarding Manley (who is black) had been met with "resistance, hostility and personal attacks" and that "my race has clouded reasonable judgment of my character." MacNeil also alleged that Manley's administrative duties, such as paying utility bills, had been neglected.
On March 20, the News Journal reported that inspectors from the Florida Department of Community Affairs would be sent to investigate the allegations. Later that day, Manley held a press conference where she denied many of the allegations and offered explanations for others. Two council members at the press conference, Reverend Hugh King and Dolores Curry, defended Manley and accused MacNeil and Nichols of racism. Another board member in attendance, Meredith Reeves (who is MacNeil's cousin), said of Manley, "She’s not good at doing the day-to-day office business... [but] has good intentions."
It was revealed that, in addition to the $24,999 salary Manley is paid by the state, supplemented by $13,000 from Escambia County and $6,000 from the City of Pensacola, she had been collecting as much as 30% of all funds received from donations and grants. Manley claimed this commission had been granted by the council in 2002, but it was not mentioned in any council minutes. She also admitted accepting a check for $4,323 of an estimated $80,000 collected from a Gulf Power Foundation fundraiser, but cited an August 8, 2003 letter by Gulf Power president & CEO Susan Story as authorization. Both Story and company representative John Hutchinson refuted this claim on several points:
- Story is not on the Gulf Power Foundation board and therefore has no official power to designate the use or recipients of donations; her letter (addressed to the Foundation, not Manley) was only a recommendation.
- Although the Gulf Power Foundation made the $5,000 donation to Front Porch as suggested by Story, it did not require or request that 20% go to Manley. According to Hutchinson, "There was no designation of any money.… When we support an organization we do it and don’t put a lot of strings on it."
- Story's letter applied only to the one-time donation and in no way meant that Manley should receive 20% of other Gulf Power fundraising activities.
Both MacNeil and Nichols tendered their resignations on March 21. In an email to the Office of Urban Opportunity, Nichols wrote that Front Porch is "out of control" and that "I believe the majority of our directors want to keep it that way."
On Friday the 23rd, the Florida Department of Community Affairs Inspector General's office requested "documentation for all years in which the Council received funds through the state's Front Porch program" to be made available by 1 p.m. Monday, March 26. Among the documents' revelations:
- Manley took $3,393 in Front Porch Pensacola funds on September 15, 2004, to pay back taxes from 2001 on a property that had been quitclaimed to her in 1999 and transferred to her ownership on March 20, 2006.
- Between 2005-2006, Manley took approximately $19,490 in payments from the Escambia County Health Department — meant for a "Mentoring Moms" program that matches young pregnant women with professional black mentors — by issuing cashier's checks to herself from the Front Porch account after depositing each $1,624 monthly payment.
- Manley leased Building "C" of the Long Hollow Community Center to a third party for $600. She then "gave a third to the Long Hollow Neighborhood Association, deposited a third in her own bank account and kept a third in the Front Porch account," in apparent accordance with the "30%" policy she believed was granted in 2002. However, Front Porch leases the building for $1/year from the Long Hollow Neighborhood Association, which in turn leases it from the City of Pensacola for $1/year, and no other leases are allowed with City permission, which Manley did not obtain.
Following a six-week investigation, Manley was fired in a May 2 letter from the Florida Department of Community Affairs. In the letter, housing and community development Janice Browning instructed Manley "not to return to work at the Front Porch Florida program office in Pensacola, nor may you provide services on a voluntary basis." The state is continuing their investigation and may hold Manley liable for missing funds and other damages.
- The community liaison position will be eliminated by 2008.
- State funds will be reduced and eventually eliminated, forcing chapters to become self-sufficient.
- An entirely new group of council members and officers, who live outside the Front Porch community, will be elected.
- Front Porch Florida homepage
- Thelma Manley - Rick's Blog, March 20, 2007
- Air needs to be cleared at Front Porch Pensacola - Pensacola News Journal, March 22, 2007
- PDF of state audit - Source: Rick's Blog
- Audit, race shake charity - Pensacola News Journal, March 18, 2007
- State to probe Front Porch - Pensacola News Journal, March 20, 2007
- The Buzz: Front Porch Debate - Independent News, March 22, 2007
- Original letter (Source: Rick's Blog)
- Gulf Power explanation - Rick's Blog, March 21, 2007
- Housing officers resign - Pensacola News Journal, March 22, 2007
- Front Porch records sought - Pensacola News Journal, March 24, 2007
- Front Porch details emerge - Pensacola News Journal, March 27, 2007
- State fires Front Porch liaison - Pensacola News Journal, May 4, 2007
- "Front Porch Pensacola saved." Pensacola News Journal, July 25, 2007.