Vacancy may weaken ACLU-KY this session

Director search is almost over, but organization remains short-staffed

The downtown headquarters of the American Civil Liberties Union of Kentucky has been quite serene lately. Not because of a decline in membership. Not because Kentuckians have turned their backs on the Bill of Rights. And not due to the sorts of internal personality conflicts that often cause social justice organizations to languish.

ACLU-KY has been tranquil because of an unavoidable and unfortunate series of events that has left key staff positions vacant, including that of executive director. The position has been open since September, when then-director Beth Wilson accepted a job with the ACLU of Florida.

Wilson’s departure, along with the loss of program associate Maria Ramirez, who organized key events such as the annual Youth Rights Leadership Conference, and Amanda Kreps-Long, who led the Reproductive Freedom Project, has left the organization to run mostly on the fumes of part-time work by a handful of volunteers and interns and two remaining staffers. Although interim Executive Director Dona Wells said she is committed to keeping the organization’s agenda together, she works another job and cannot be at the ACLU office more than three days a week.

The organization’s board hopes that naming a new director by the end of the month will resuscitate its dormant programs and legislative agenda quickly enough to have an impact in Frankfort during the latter half of the upcoming legislative session.

The two finalists, who LEO won’t name because both are involved in local social justice organizations that work with the ACLU, were among a group of at least 11 who applied for the position last year. The two were scheduled to be interviewed by ACLU-KY’s board on Dec. 31; a decision is expected by mid-January.

ACLU-KY has grown over the last several years, doubling its staff from two-and-a-half to five. But with its programmatic and educational work transitioning, the organization’s strongest facet over the last few months has been litigation, now administered by staff attorney William E. Sharp, who joined the ACLU-KY in May.
“Obviously, with fewer personnel we’re not able to accomplish as many things as we’d like,” Sharp said. However, since he came aboard in the spring, Sharp said, he has filed two new cases while overseeing previous ones.

The most recent, Wilson v. Rees, was filed in federal court in November in conjunction with the Louisville Public Defenders Office, on behalf of Gregory Wilson, a death row inmate challenging Kentucky’s lethal injection procedures.

Sharp told LEO that the staffers who left were extremely helpful in acquainting him with the structure of the organization, but obviously they were not practicing law.

“In terms of impact upon my role, Beth and others leaving has been very minimal,” he said.
Though Sharp is keenly focused on litigation and expanding his role in the coming year, he is conscious of the office’s emptiness. But he remains optimistic about the prospects for 2008.

“I think we’ve got a great opportunity,” he said. “The new executive director will have a chance to shape the office significantly, with lasting and long-term consequences.”

Still, the loss and continued absence of key personnel does affect administrative, programmatic and legislative work. While the vacancies are nothing unusual for a group where staff regularly moves on or gets shuffled, the timing makes the extant situation more than a molehill.

The legislative session begins Jan. 8, and among the biggest concerns for civil liberties advocates and other social justice allies around the Bluegrass is the issue of the organization’s effectiveness. One source within ACLU-KY told LEO the organization is ill equipped for the session and will have no presence in Frankfort, even if a new director comes on-board in January.

That’s troubling considering the possibilities. Although drowned out by the roar surrounding possible casino gambling, a key proposal in this year’s session is a proposed constitutional amendment that would restore voting rights for convicted felons, co-sponsored by Democratic Reps. Darryl Owens of Louisville and Jesse Crenshaw of Lexington. But pundits hold out little hope for the amendment, based largely on the failure of a similar bill that died in the Senate Judiciary Committee last year.

Still, the vacancy at the helm of ACLU-KY will be palpable in Frankfort in the coming weeks, even as the organization operates under the umbrella of the Voting Rights Coalition, a broad lobbying partnership that includes the NAACP and League of Women Voters. John Martin, chair of ACLU-KY’s Board of Directors, said anytime an organization loses its leader, things are bound to fluctuate.

“The legislative session is always a challenge for the affiliate and for other organizations that interact with our elected representatives,” he wrote in an e-mail. “I believe we will be fine in this arena with members of the affiliate who have experience in this area. And I believe the new executive director will bring some level of expertise in lobbying so that he or she can ‘hit the ground running.’”

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