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Maryland Money Woes

by Yusef Najafi
Saturday May 28, 2011

Equality Maryland could shut down operations at the end of June if it does not collect $20,000 to $25,000 in donations to cover operating expenses, according to members of the statewide LGBT-advocacy organization's board.

Those expenses include rent for its Baltimore office headquarters, as well as salary for current staff. Equality Maryland has two full-time staff members, while interim Executive Director Lynne Bowman earns roughly $7,000 per month, employed as an independent contractor.

Charles Butler, board president of Equality Maryland Inc., the lobbying arm of Equality Maryland, says the organization had ''gotten away from engaging the community as far as fundraising goes to cover operating costs'' under past leadership.

''The previous board chair would just use his personal resources to take care of that, and unfortunately the organization got in the habit of relying on that,'' says Butler. ''The organization got out of the habit of cultivating members in Maryland. That's something we need to do again.

''And then because of the potential to win on the gender identity antidiscrimination legislation and the marriage-equality legislation, we got a significant infusion of funds from national partner organizations geared toward helping with things like lobbying and field work, the things that aid us in succeeding legislatively.''

Butler says the organization relies, however, on individual donors for operating costs. But if Equality Maryland were to shut down this summer, Butler says the organization would be able to pay off all of its current debt. That includes money owed to an outside vendor for polling, which is due at the end of June.

Patrick Wojahn, board chair of Equality Maryland Foundation, the organization's educational arm, says help from national organizations, such as Freedom to Marry and the Human Rights Campaign, currently pays for staff salaries at Equality Maryland. Those grants were awarded to Equality Maryland to advance marriage-equality bills in the last legislative session, which ended April 11.

Wojahn also guesses that national organizations who have aided Equality Maryland in its fight for marriage equality may also be hesitant to support such efforts in the near future if a victory in Annapolis seems likely to spark a ballot battle.

''There is some concern among national organizations that in Maryland, since it would very likely go to referendum, there's a lot of concern that we don't want to go to referendum unless we're certain we will win,'' he says. ''We got a sense from the national organizations that they would rather put their focus on a state that doesn't have much risk of a referendum.''

Butler also placed blame for some measure of the organization's fiscal woes on former Executive Director Morgan Meneses-Sheets, pointing to ongoing ''financial commitments'' made by her without board knowledge. He declined to elaborate the exact nature of those commitments.

Meneses-Sheets, however, flatly countered Butler's claim.

''Every contract that was signed - everything from grant agreements to vendors, every single contract that we signed - was reviewed by the treasurer of the board,'' she says, adding that Equality Maryland was ''in complete disarray'' at the time she was hired in 2009, and ''had money in the bank'' when she left in April.

''They're trying to pretend like it was a different board,'' Meneses-Sheets says. ''It was not a different board. All four of the executive committee members who make all the final decisions were on the board in 2009. [In] six months they spent down the entire reserve of that organization.

''When I came in, in 2009, the organization was in the red. I rebuilt that organization. We had no volunteer program. We had no field program. Our donors did not trust us. ... We were in the red. I rebuilt the organization. And the thanks that I got was that when they needed a political scapegoat, there I went.''

Yet even with Meneses-Sheets's departure from Equality Maryland, there is disagreement. While Meneses-Sheets says the board fired her, board members who spoke with Metro Weekly say that she resigned.

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