The Portland and Bangor branches of the NAACP have been operating for the past two years without the approval of the national organization and should have stopped all activity in late 2013, according to the NAACP regional president.

In that time, the branches have continued to sell tickets to annual breakfasts honoring Martin Luther King Jr., and branch leaders have testified before the state Legislature, written letters and made statements about civil rights issues around the state.

The branches were put on “inactive” status because they were not following NAACP bylaws, said Juan Cofield, president of the NAACP New England Association Conference. He would not elaborate, but did say the status was not related to any financial wrongdoing or because local NAACP officers have regularly testified before the Legislature over the years in violation of NAACP bylaws.

It’s not clear what has happened to any donations made to the Portland and Bangor branches, or revenue from their events, during the inactive period. Normally, the local branches give 25 percent of any donation or revenue to the national office.

Cofield said last week that he was “just becoming aware of the extent to which” the branches were continuing to operate. It matters, he said, because “the NAACP didn’t get to be what it is by letting everybody do whatever they wanted in the name of the NAACP.”

Cofield would not say whether any efforts were made to stop the branches from operating over the past two years.

The presidents of the two branches, Rachel Talbot Ross in Portland and Michael Alpert in Bangor, did not respond to repeated messages left by phone and in person over the course of several days last week. The vice presidents of the two branches both said they had not been officially notified that they were on inactive status, but acknowledged that Cofield had contacted them to talk about their status.

Cofield disputed the branches’ assertion that they did not know they were on inactive status, but refused to say whether he had sent them an official written notice.

“There were discussions that went into what they needed to do to get in good standing again, and that was over several months. And it just never happened,” Cofield said of the Portland branch.

Bob Talbot, vice president of the Greater Bangor Area NAACP, said Cofield told them they needed to increase their membership – a branch must maintain 50 active members – but never officially notified them they were on inactive status.

Talbot Ross, the city of Portland’s longtime director of equal opportunity and multicultural affairs, was recently put on paid leave and then resigned from her job with the city. She has been president of the Portland NAACP since 2004. The branch was established in the 1920s.

“No one should be suggesting that there’s an active branch in Portland,” Cofield said. “I like Rachel, but the branch just wasn’t functioning as expected of it. The branch was not following the bylaws and policies of the NAACP.”

The national NAACP spokeswoman, Raquel Coombs, declined to comment on the situation, including why the national office continued during the past two years to file an annual report with the Maine Secretary of State’s office, allowing the organization to operate in Maine. The NAACP has an active Maine branch at the Maine State Prison, and students at the University of Southern Maine are currently trying to open a college branch.

“The NAACP national office will address this issue internally,” Coombs said in an email Friday.

MAINE BRANCHES APPEAR ACTIVE

To all outward appearances, the Portland and Bangor branches have been active during the last two years.

The Portland NAACP website and Facebook sites are active and updated, the organization continues to hold the annual Martin Luther King Jr. Holiday Breakfast, and Talbot Ross continues to advocate publicly on various issues on behalf of the organization. The breakfast is a major civic event, regularly drawing about 700 people who purchase tickets to attend.

Alpert and the Bangor NAACP have also been active in the last two years, including co-sponsoring an annual MLK breakfast event at the University of Maine in Orono. Earlier this year, Alpert, on behalf of the Bangor NAACP, asked school officials in Skowhegan to stop using the Indian name and image as a mascot for sports teams.

Last week, Talbot Ross testified on behalf of the Portland NAACP at a public hearing in Augusta in opposition to proposed discipline rules by the Maine Department of Corrections concerning inmates’ ability to communicate with the outside world.

“That was inappropriate and she had no authority to do that,” Cofield said. “(It) disturbs me greatly.” Over the years, he said, he had asked Talbot Ross to not testify before the Legislature.

NAACP bylaws say only regional officers, not local state officers, may speak on state legislative matters.

Portland NAACP Vice President Sallie Chandler said the relationship with the regional office “has been strained for a long time,” particularly around legislative and political activity.

“We do what we need to do on a local level,” said Chandler, who sits on the Maine Human Rights Commission and is the York County Commission chairwoman. She also has served as president of the Bangor NAACP.

“I don’t need regional to tell me I can’t go in front of legislators in Maine on Maine issues. I don’t need regional to tell me that we as a branch can’t take a position on legislative issues in Maine,” she said. “We just do it. What’s the argument? You’re not going to tell me I can’t support people with issues of discrimination in the state of Maine.”

Talbot, the Bangor NAACP vice president, said being placed on inactive status was an “internal” issue and that “branches throughout the country bounce in and out of active status.”

“The need for the NAACP to carry out its mission doesn’t abate because we’re on inactive status,” he said.

When asked if it would be problematic for a branch officer to hold a dual role as a city employee, as Talbot Ross has done, Cofield said it could be.

“A branch’s main point of advocacy is around stuff happening in their jurisdiction, which in most cases is a city,” Cofield said. “If the city is not performing as it could be, it could be problematic” for an NAACP officer to have a dual responsibility to the city and the NAACP.

Cofield said the NAACP would be interested in reactivating the Portland and Bangor branches if anyone stepped forward.

The 88 pages of NAACP unit bylaws cover a range of rules, from paying modest dues and filing regular financial and activity reports to the national and regional offices to spelling out the limits of unit members’ political activity. For example, branches may hold voter registration drives and give people rides to the polls on election day, but it must be nonpartisan. It also states that 25 percent of the net proceeds of any “contribution, entertainment or fundraising” activity of a unit must be sent to the national office.

Cofield refused to say whether the Maine branches have continued to file annual reports and activity reports or paid their assessments to the national offices during the last two years.

When asked if the branches were continuing to file paperwork or pay assessments to the national office, Talbot refused to say and Chandler said she didn’t know, and referred questions to Talbot Ross.

Talbot Ross is resigning from her city job effective Dec. 11 in the wake of an Aug. 26 incident involving a parking lot attendant that prompted a $6,000 investigation by an outside law firm. Talbot Ross and city officials have refused to describe the incident and city records about it are not public because there was no final disciplinary action.


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