About an hour into the meeting, Tony McCray called for a timeout. Play on the field was getting rough.
“If we could just smoke the peace pipe for a second,” McCray urged.
But Pensacola City Councilman John Jerralds was in no mood for the peace pipe. Months into his campaign to revamp the Gulf Coast African-American Chamber of Commerce, the councilman seemed to be going in for the kill.
“But the world is not ending tomorrow, John,” McCray said, pushing for a continuation of the conversation.
Jerralds refused to flinch. The councilman seemed convinced that the GCAACC had languished under the direction of its current chairman, George Hawthorne.
“Tony, tell him what we’ve been doing,” Hawthorne called to McCray from the gallery.
Jerralds asked if anyone else had anything to add to the conversation. He was apparently finished listening to Hawthorne’s position.
“What is this foolishness?” the councilman scolded.
“You don’t understand what Mr. Hawthorne is trying to do,” McCray replied. “He is essentially trying to hand you a peaceful solution to the situation.”
For months, Jerralds has been challenging the validity of the GCAACC. The city councilman has held a series of meetings in an effort to foster a discussion on the matter among the area’s black business community. During his first meeting, Jerralds had Hawthorne removed from the gathering after the chairman attempted to assert his authority.
For his part, Hawthorne has said the GCAACC is currently evolving. He’s consistently pushed aside requests for organizational information—board members, officers, budgets—saying his group would soon announce a “game plan” for the future.
Prior to Jerralds‘ May 17 meeting—the third such meeting at Pensacola City Hall—Hawthorne said that the GCAACC had decided to hold off on announcing its plans. Instead, the chairman said, he wanted to try to work with Jerralds and members of the business community that had gravitated toward the councilman’s message.
“We’re gonna try to work out something with them,” Hawthorne said a day before the meeting. “We want to work together. We want to bring this community together.”
The chairman said he would most likely make a presentation during Jerralds’ meeting. That presentation was never made.
Jerralds opened the meeting by asking Hawthorne for the names of the GCAACC’s officers. Hawthorne replied that he was the chairman, but did not provide other officers.
“Well, what we’re looking at, unfortunately, is a dysfunctional organization,” Jerralds said.
The chairman told Jerralds that he desired to work together. He said continuing at odds would further divide the minority business community.
“We are willing to work with this group,” Hawthorne told Jerralds. “Clearly, my position is: we need to work together.”
Jerralds said that the chairman had been given ample time to demonstrate the organization’s viability. Before making his discontent public, the councilman said, he had encouraged Hawthorne privately in regards to the chamber.
“I said, as a council member, to me, it looks bad,” Jerralds recalled the private conversation. “It’s embarrassing.”
Jackie Miles, editor of the Pensacola Voice, has recently joined Jerralds in hosting his chamber conversations. She said that she was on the GCAACC board, but that the organization had not met since last fall.
“Jackie, let’s be honest,” Hawthorne told her. “There were three other meetings called and no one showed up.”
“After we had that meeting in November, everybody walked out of there thinking we weren’t coming anymore,” Miles said, explaining that members hadn’t wanted to confront the chairman about the state of the organization. “Instead, they chose not to show up.”
Miles also said that the GCAACC needed to be reorganized quickly so that the newly-organized body can take advantage of various funding opportunities. Hawthorne has said in the past that the organization’s name—the Gulf Coast African-American Chamber of Commerce—is not up for grabs; he has threatened a lawsuit.
“Move forward,” Jerralds snapped at the chairman. “Move forward with your ‘swift legal action.’”
The councilman then called for people interested in joining a reorganized chamber to sign up. Hawthorne challenged such a move.
“You have no authority,” the GCAACC chairman said. “You’re not a member of this organization.”
“Neither are you,” Jerralds said. “You’re a one-man show.”
Several individuals in attendance offered up their own take on the recent drama surrounding the black chamber. Robin Reshard, a local filmmaker, said that “egos” had clouded the conversation—“I feel kind of like the Lorax in doing this”— and made a plea for a civil back-and-forth.
“The conversation has to be, not a question-and-answer, but a dialogue, a conversation,” she said, also cautioning against focusing too heavily on available funding. “We look like ‘grant-hos’—like we’re moving toward the money, not moving toward the mission.”
After the meeting, the councilman said he had over a dozen people sign up for the new chamber. He called Hawthorne’s input at the meeting “pure foolishness.”
“I gave them two months didn’t I?” Jerralds said. “Did they use it wisely and get themselves organized? No.”
Jerralds also discounted any chances of working with Hawthorne when comprising a new chamber.
“For what? What the hell for, if he’s going to sit on his butt and do what he’s been doing?” the councilman said. “I have no use for him. He has no use for this community.”
The next day, Hawthorne released the Gulf Coast African-American Chamber of Commerce Strategic Plan 2012-2015, as well as a personal statement. In the statement, the chairman said that the community’s focus on him personally was distracting from the mission of the GCAACC. He also apologized to his wife for the amount of time and personal expenses he had devoted to the group, and offered his resignation as chairman.
“It is my sincere desire that the GCAACC’s new leadership will serve as courageous advocates and be a ‘voice’ for the African-American business community and other small businesses,” Hawthorne wrote in his statement, “and they will strive to ensure economic parity and they not become political ‘pawns’ for the visionless individuals attempting to subvert the ‘mission’ of the Chamber for political gain or personal agendas.”
Hawthorne said in his statement that his resignation would be effective as soon as the GCAACC’s new leadership desired. He agreed to stay on to facilitate an orderly transition, and encouraged community participation in the chamber going forward.
“My departure should open the door for new leaders to lead the GCAACC,” Hawthorne wrote, “without my personality and leadership being perceived as standing in the way of the GCAACC’s Mission and thereby giving my detractors an opportunity to discredit the GCAACC.”