Chattanooga Neighborhood Enterprise director candidates have mixed backgrounds

Chattanooga Neighborhood Enterprise director candidates have mixed backgrounds

June 14th, 2013 by Ellis Smith in Business Around the Region

Finalists to head CNE

* Michael Schubert -- former housing commissioner for the city of Chicago, will interview today for the top post at CNE.

* Martina Guilfoil -- who interviewed Thursday, is the former executive director of the Rainier Valley Community Development Fund in Seattle.

* BettyeLynn Smith -- The former executive director of Chattanooga-based Community Impact withdrew from consideration on Thursday.

Source: Chattanooga Neighborhood Enterprise

Chattanooga Neighborhood Enterprise is looking for redemption.

The nonprofit organization, tasked with making below-market-rate loans and overseeing efforts to rejuvenate the Scenic City's neighborhoods, was rocked by financial and sexual scandals under former executive David Johnson. Now, the group is in the last stages of its effort to hire a new executive director whose first job will be to rejuvenate CNE itself.

Perhaps it's fitting that the finalists for the job are no strangers to scandals and their aftermath.

Michael Schubert, who interviews today for the top post at CNE, came under fire in April 2012 for what one Chicago watchdog group alleged was a sweetheart loan from Neighborhood Housing Services.

Schubert, who did not respond to a request for comment, was appointed by former Chicago Mayor Richard Daley as commissioner of housing for the City of Chicago before later moving into a position at consulting firm Community Development Strategies.

He resigned from the Daley administration in 1991, under fire from housing groups for not prioritizing affordable housing for low-income residents, the Chicago Tribune reported.

His career -- like all CNE's final candidates -- has seen a couple negative headlines. But Schubert's qualifications and skills are top notch, said John Bridger, board member at CNE. Schubert was selected from a field of hundreds of candidates, and as housing commissioner of Chicago would bring top-level experience to Chattanooga, Bridger said.

"Anybody who's been in the field that long may make a decision or have something happen that is a mistake," Bridger said. "We share the same thing with them about CNE's record. We've made some good decisions and we've made some we wish we hadn't made."

Schubert is one of three candidates with imperfect records, even if their skills are a perfect fit for CNE's mission, board members say.

The future manager of the quasi-governmental agency must balance a large loan portfolio, be well versed in home repair and construction, understand education efforts and be comfortable with finance.

The pool of available executives who can balance all these skills is not a big one, Bridger said.

"When we went through this process, these three candidates do have these qualities," he said. "Mistakes happen, and that's OK, we're all human. So we ask what did you learn from it?"

Martina Guilfoil, who interviewed for the position Thursday and is described by CNE board members as "dynamic" and "innovative," also brings baggage to an organization that is almost out of space in its overhead bins.

"I want to tell you that you are one crazy-a-- b--ch," began a letter Guilfoil later said was intended as an inter-office joke. "It was a complete waste of time for you to come before the board, though it did provide us with some comic relief."

That mean-spirited missive found its way to Seattle resident Jessie Jones in response to her attempts to get a loan for her hair salon, according to Seattle TV station KIRO 7.

Guilfoil, who was employed at the time in Seattle at the Rainier Valley Community Development Fund, resigned in 2010 under investigation for professional misconduct, KIRO 7 reported.

Yet outside of the scandal, the non-profits under her care in Florida, California and Washington prospered.

At a series of executive positions from 1986 through 2010, Guilfoil helped the organizations become self-sustaining, pioneered ways for cities to grow affordable housing even during periods of growth, and led a trade association for affordable housing, board members say.

Guilfoil did not respond to requests for comment.

But her slip-up is not a deal killer; merely a joke that got out of hand, said CNE board member Steve Johnson. After all, almost everyone has let an off-color remark slip out or has experienced regret after pressing the send button on an ill-advised email, Johnson said.

"As far as we can tell, it was a one-time thing, not a pattern," he said. "It was a one-time bad event in her life."

BettyeLynn Smith, former executive director of shuttered organization Community Impact, was the third candidate under consideration for the top spot, but she withdrew Thursday morning just before her interview.

Smith, who has led or worked with a wide variety of non-profit groups in Chattanooga, grabbed national headlines 20 years ago when she admitted in court to supplying crack cocaine to disgraced Washington, D.C. mayor Marion Barry for seven years, and copped to smoking crack with him more than 15 times before he was busted in an FBI raid, according to news reports.

Smith was never charged with a crime, and since her court-ordered testimony in 1990 has made her mark on the Chattanooga nonprofit scene in a variety of roles. The only candidate under consideration who hails from Chattanooga, Smith has served as a trustee of the City of Chattanooga General Pension Plan, has worked on the board of directors of the Urban League, and previously worked for CNE as the vice president of neighbhorhood revitalization and community relations. Smith did not respond to requests for comment.

"As she went through her own personal journey, and what she wants to do with her career, she wants to go in a different direction and we respect that," Bridger said. "And we wish her the best."

If CNE, which takes in roughly $7 million in revenue per year, determines that none of the candidates are a good fit, the organization will go back to the pool of candidates.

A spokeswoman for Andy Berke said the mayor is not involved in the selection process, though the group does receive about $1 million from Chattanooga each year through the federal Community Development Block Grant program.

Contact staff writer Ellis Smith at esmith@timesfree or 423-757-6315.