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East Central Community Center director quits over pay flap

The director of Spokane’s East Central Community Center has resigned following disclosures that she allowed a city employee to draw bigger paychecks than she was due by improperly claiming more hours than she’d actually worked.

Diane Jackson had led the center for nearly two decades. The employee, Sonya Ellis, had been there since 2004 and at one point may have been in charge of payroll.

Both resigned Aug. 29 at the request of the mayor, said City Administrator Ted Danek.

“We’re still looking into it, and the state auditor is also looking into it,” Danek said. “Any criminal outcome is dependent on the rest of the investigation and on what the state auditor finds.”

City officials say Ellis was overpaid about $5,300 this year through the filing of false time cards.

The East Central Community Center is owned and operated by the city of Spokane, and its employees are on the city payroll. But Danek said the overpayments involved money that came from a nonprofit group associated with the center.

Danek said the mayor’s office received a tip on Aug. 26 from a resident who was concerned about potential overpayments. He said he was uncertain if the money was repaid.

Jackson was paid $84,053 by the city last year. Ellis earned $42,164 from the city, including $830 in overtime. Attempts made to reach Jackson and Ellis were unsuccessful Tuesday.

Officials from the East Central Community Organization, which was the center’s nonprofit arm until 2009, had raised questions about center accounting until the center announced ECCO would no longer serve as its advisory board.

“We really began requesting her to be accountable to us,” said Jerry Numbers, ECCO’s vice chairman who also is the president of the East Central Neighborhood Council.

In 2009, Jackson informed the ECCO board that a new group, the East Central Neighborhood Wellness Association, was formed to take its place as the center’s advisory board.

“We didn’t find out until she said she had a new board,” Numbers said. “It was a very underhanded move.”

ECCO continues to work on neighborhood projects, including low-income housing and a community garden, but it has split financially from the center and has hired an outside accountant.

Chris Venne, president of the ECCO board, said he didn’t suspect dishonesty when the board questioned the community center’s books, which were maintained by a city employee.

“What we found were technical errors,” Venne said. “We wanted to make sure the program protocols were followed 100 percent of the time, but we didn’t feel that was going on.”

He said ECCO also asked that the board approve the application of all grants. He said Jackson appeared to “take personally” the board’s demands.

Venne said Jackson’s argument about creating a new board to overtake ECCO’s role was that ECCO had expanded into other areas and that a new group was needed to focus singularly on the center.

“It was not our plan to give up the community center,” Venne said. “We just wanted to expand.”

Payments to Ellis have been at issue before. Venne said that until earlier this year, Ellis had been billing ECCO for eight hours of work every two weeks, but it was unclear to ECCO what work she was performing because many ties between the center and ECCO had already been cut.

“At some point she was doing work for us. The question was, how come it’s eight hours every two weeks no matter what?” Venne said. “It just seemed a little odd to us.”

Despite the tension between ECCO and Jackson, Venne said the event that led to her resignation is likely an “aberration.”

“Diane did a lot of good for the neighborhood,” he said. “She was a dedicated person.”

Steve Twiggs, vice president of the East Central Neighborhood Wellness Association, the center’s new advisory board, said Tuesday morning that he was unaware of Jackson’s resignation.

Jackson was hired in 1987 and had led the center since 1992.

Twiggs said Jackson was named the city’s employee of the month earlier this year. He praised Jackson’s leadership and commitment.

“We need to have people who really care about the neighborhood, and she does. I hope there’s some error,” Twiggs said. “She moved everything forward in a positive way and is respected in the community and the neighborhoods.”

Kathy Armstrong, who leads the center’s senior program, has been named interim director. She has worked at East Central since 2002.

Unlike the West Central and Northeast community centers, East Central is city-owned. Numbers said with Jackson’s resignation, the city should consider turning East Central into a separate nonprofit agency.

“The timing is right,” Numbers said.

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