A timely death? 

As if things weren't bad enough for the city's embattled Empowerment Zone, the citizens' group that's supposed provide guidance to zone administrators may be headed for extinction.

It's little surprise; the 30-member Citizens Empowerment Advisory Board, which has an annual budget of about $200,000, has never worked as it should. It's been exploited and harassed by the city and been prone to internecine conflict since its inception. So maybe the zone would do well to start over. But if the city's relationship with the group ends, so too will any opportunity for organized input from the community.

At issue is a disputed election of Advisory Board officers, a proverbial struggle over the helm of the Titanic. The fight that's resulted has encouraged Empowerment Zone interim Executive Director Ron Diamond to threaten to sever the city's relationship with the group.

The conflict has diminished the board's ability to operate as an effective organization to represent the citizens of the zone, Diamond writes in a June 28 letter. If the Advisory Board can't straighten out the situation within 30 days, it will "result in the immediate termination" of its agreement with the zone corporation.

The disputed election seems to have thrown the day-to-day operations of the organization into disarray, though Diamond's own agency is supposed to provide oversight and support for the group.

The board's 2001 taxes still haven't been done, and as of June 11, the Advisory Board had just 10 days to pay the city $3,141.96 in rent before the city began legal actions to collect the money, according to a letter received by the board June 19. A separate letter dated May 23 states that the organization had not paid the rent for its Georgia Hill Center digs between September 2001 and February 2002; outgoing Advisory Board Chairwoman Marie Cowser, however, cautions that the back rent is not as extensive as the city asserts.

While the group untangles that situation, it also has been bouncing checks because of what Cowser describes as an accounting snafu. The group owes BellSouth $1,117, after the company returned a $737 check, according to a bill dated June 19. An April 12 check to the Advisory Board's secretary for $709.62 also bounced, though a replacement check was issued.

Cowser says an independent arbiter needs to come in and help settle the fight.

"This is not a battle for power, because there is no power there," Cowser says. "The reality is that we have not been on top of what we need to do."


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