Passing the torch
As controversy grows, Pasadena NAACP President Joe Brown begins searching for his replacement
By André Coleman 11/07/2012
Joe Brown looked tired. Usually cheerful and exuberant, last Friday the NAACP Pasadena Branch president appeared drawn and haggard, worn out from all the recent infighting over upcoming NAACP elections and questions about his leadership during the past few months of his 12-year tenure.
He’s running for another two-year term, but it’s clear that Brown wants out of his office. The organization currently owes thousands of dollars in back membership fees to its national office, is facing major problems with its landlord and recently, other members have called for Brown’s ouster.
“I’m 68,” said the US Army veteran and retired US Postal Service supervisor during lunch last week. “Even if they elect me, I can tell you right now, I won’t complete my next term. I am looking for somebody to step up and carry the ball.”
To that end, Brown acknowledged he is looking for a successor who could fill in as president after he wins another term and then resigns — a goal that has been met with skepticism and derision by some NAACP members.
“It is unfortunate that someone in Mr. Brown’s position thinks a position like that can be offered to someone without a democratic process,” said James Smith, a former first vice president with the NAACP Pasadena branch, who was chosen for that position two years ago by Brown. “It validates the improprieties that have been going on for a long time. It speaks to the need to correct the processes for the sake of the integrity of the Pasadena NAACP.”
During his time at the helm, Brown has been hailed for taking tough stances on issues affecting the black community, particularly those involving police. Under former Police Chief Bernard Melekian, Brown was on a first-call basis when it came to officer-involved shootings or other violent confrontations between residents and police. And during the mid- to late-2000s, Brown was a strident critic of police procedures in a number of those cases.
Since then, Melekian has been replaced by Chief Phillip Sanchez. And while their relationship is not as cordial as the one he shared with Melekian, Brown and Sanchez are social friends. When unarmed 19-year-old Kendrec McDade was shot and killed by two Pasadena police officers in March, however, and Sanchez was set to host the organization’s Ruby McKnight Williams awards dinner, Brown declined to rescind the invitation to Sanchez to emcee the event, sparking outcry by members of the McDade family.
The decision to not replace Sanchez sparked a small but vocal protest against Brown outside the Hilton Hotel, where the dinner was being held last June. Leading the charge against him was Caree Harper, attorney for McDade’s father, Kenneth McDade, who is suing the city in federal court in relation to the death of his son.
Today, Harper is running against Brown for the presidency. However, due to alleged election irregularities, the governing NAACP national organization in Baltimore has suspended local elections indefinitely.
“I have asked the state NAACP (in Sacramento, which answers to the national branch) to hold the election to make sure there is no skullduggery,” Brown said. “If anyone here in the branch led the election, the integrity would be in question.”
Harper and Smith — both former Brown allies — claim Brown violated NAACP bylaws at the organization’s Oct. 2 meeting when he failed to properly notify the general membership of the elections, which were set for last Wednesday, and conducted the meeting without a nominating committee. The pair also questioned Brown’s eligibility to lead the group, since he lives in nearby Altadena, which has its own NAACP chapter.
Brown brushed aside the criticism as unfounded, saying other presidents have lived in neighboring Altadena and that the irregularities being discussed by Harper and Smith consist of undated nomination forms and the lack of a secretary to take meeting minutes. The bylaws call for a secretary to record the minutes of all meetings. On Saturday, the group appointed Pastor Daniel Holmes to serve as interim secretary to replace Whitney Reese, who resigned earlier this year.
Although he does not know when the election will be held, Brown was open about his desire to pick a replacement to take over — without being elected — after he wins another term.
Making Brown’s selection process somewhat complicated is the election of Pasadena City Councilman Chris Holden Tuesday to the newly created 41st Assembly District seat.
Brown said he believed Ishmael Trone, an undeclared candidate for Holden’s council seat, former NAACP President John J. Kennedy and former City Council candidates Charles Nelson and Allen Shay would be great in the position.
“Either of these two men would be perfect to move the group forward,” Brown said of Trone and Kennedy. “Somebody has to step up to the plate and move the ball. Your legacy is decided by who you hand the baton off to. I don’t want to get close to the finish line and hand the baton off to someone who is going to stumble. Everybody can’t be on the City Council.”
Collaboration before agitation
Started in 1919, the NAACP Pasadena Branch is one of the city’s oldest and most powerful political organizations, whose members include Holden, Councilwoman Jacque Robinson, Pasadena police Lt. Phlunte Riddle and businessman and former City Council candidate Robin Salzer.
Brown told the Weekly he “would step down tomorrow” if Trone — a Pasadena tax accountant — would agree to be president of the organization. Less than an hour later, Brown called Trone and attempted to schedule a meeting to offer him the position of first vice president. Brown was prepared to guarantee he would step down 30 days after the election, leaving Trone in charge. Trone, however, declined the offer and said he did not meet with Brown.
“I will confirm he called me for a meeting and asked me to become the first vice president,” Trone said. “But I am not entertaining the thought. There needs to be transparency and there needs to be an election process in selecting who leads the NAACP.”
If Trone had accepted Brown’s offer, he would not be eligible to run for a council seat. By then, the Dec. 7 nominating process would be closed.
Kennedy did not return phone calls seeking comment for this story.
But other problems loom large. The Japanese Cultural Center, which owns the group’s headquarters on Lincoln Avenue, has demanded that no more press conferences or impromptu meetings be held there due to the confusion they create and the group’s inability to vet people entering the location, which also houses a Head Start children’s facility.
“They want to raise the rent, and they have already told us we cannot continue to have press conferences and unscheduled meetings at the office due to concerns raised by parents whose children attend the Head Start program in the same development. We can only meet there on the first Tuesday of the month now,” Brown said.
Brown also noted that the local group owes the state and national chapters back fees, which have not been paid for several years. Members pay $30 a year in dues, with two-thirds of that amount going to the state office. Brown said that money was used in Pasadena to help meet expenses.
“Somebody has to be able to keep the doors open,” said Brown, an ordained Baptist minister. “That person has to be able to bring people together. We need collaboration before agitation. Sometimes people don’t understand the difference. I had to learn that lesson the hard way.”