ComLinks' stated mission is to improve quality of life. Its stated vision is "to help move people and families out of the cycle of poverty" by offering assistance to attain skills, knowledge and opportunities through its various programs. In a nutshell, it's there to serve people in need, but sadly, it can't do that so well anymore.
Now, for instance, it's eliminating its housing program, which has given decent, subsidized rental homes and other aid to many low-income people in Lake Placid, Saranac Lake and beyond. ComLinks is also closing its Women's Entrepreneurial Business Center. It severed its program to shelter and counsel domestic violence victims several years ago. Thank goodness it still gleans food for food pantries and weatherizes homes to help people save on energy bills.
ComLinks lost credibility because of corruption within, and therefore it let down the people it was supposed to help. It was by far the leading charity in Franklin and Essex counties, but it's no longer trusted to spend so much state and local grant money.
That's why, on Friday, its board was right to lay off Executive Director Brian Cassini, who had been criticized in a July 2010 state audit that blasted the agency for terrible financial oversight.
ComLinks' programs were all going strong just a few years ago. They started to slip in the late 2000s and then spiraled sharply downward after the state's 2010 investigation. Nancy Reich, executive director at the time, was accused of using her ComLinks credit card lavishly on herself, spending more than $100,000 of grant money on golf club memberships, wine, massages, vacations, home appliances, flowers and political donations. She pleaded guilty in late 2011 to grand larceny but was sentenced to no prison time and just $1,500 in restitution. It was a flagrant injustice: She had stolen from the poor and the taxpayers to give richly to herself, but she was penalized less than many a poor thief who steals to survive.
ComLinks tried to put Ms. Reich behind it, changing its entire board membership, but time has told that the agency didn't do enough. Despite nudgings from the state comptroller's office and others, the board retained Chief Financial Officer Brenda Mallette-Glennon and promoted Mr. Cassini. The state audit had criticized both of them, although no criminal charges were filed. Board members argued that they needed the continuity amid such turmoil.
It was well-intentioned, but it only dragged out the pain and prevented the organization from rising from its ashes.
Mallette-Glennon resigned in June 2011, saying the organization couldn't afford her anymore. Now the board says it can't afford an executive director, either; it will not replace Mr. Cassini.
We believe ComLinks is needed more than ever during these rough economic times, but it needs to be refreshed and revamped. It needs to change its name, focus on its strengths and use public funds efficiently - not build a grant-funded empire with generous executive salaries.
"We want to prove ourselves right now that we're a new organization," said current board President the Rev. Joe Selenski, who is also director of the Barnabas House homeless shelter and pastor of Lifeway Community Church in Malone.
With that kind of attitude, we're optimistic. We hope ComLinks can move forward and offer more valuable programs that are desperately needed.