A decision by Anne Arundel County officials to eliminate $5,000 in funding for the annual Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Breakfast has resulted in a pointed back-and-forth between the administration of County Executive John R. Leopold and a prominent local civil rights leader.
Carl O. Snowden, the former longtime chairman of the breakfast, alleges racial insensitivity on the part of the county. He sharply criticized Leopold after it became public that the county had rescinded its annual funding because the committee that puts on the breakfast is not a registered nonprofit group, which officials say is a requirement.
Snowden said last week that Leopold is "not a big supporter of social justice policies."
Leopold's spokesman rebutted the statements, and ticked off a list of Leopold's diversity and social justice initiatives, including his strong support for the Gems and Jewels program at Bates Middle School, which targets at-risk teenage girls.
"I don't think funding a breakfast is a measure of one's social agenda," said Dave Abrams, the spokesman and added, "Playing the race card is a lazy and irresponsible way of saying the rules do not apply to me."
In addition, Abrams said Leopold, a Republican, attends the breakfast each year and that the county's Human Relations Commission has frequently bought a table of tickets for the event.
Of Leopold's attendance at the breakfast, Snowden said, "He attends, gets recognized and leaves. I think that says something in and of itself. It's good to have public officials publicly state the vision that Dr. King had. Just showing up isn't the same."
The discord over the annual event — in its 31st year — began when officials announced that the county would cease to support the dinner with the contribution it had made for the past five years.
The two sides don't agree on when that decision was made. County officials say that soon after a report by the county auditor earlier last year raised questions over the breakfast committee's eligibility to receive the money, the county decided to end the grant and informed organizers. The event will go on as scheduled Jan. 16.
Snowden and other organizers, however, said they were not made aware of the decision until last month. The breakfast is sponsored by a consortium of organizations and members say it is not registered as a nonprofit because its sole function is to put on the annual breakfast.
Eugene Peterson, a member of the county school board and the current chairman of the breakfast committee, said he was "assured that we would be in the budget" when he spoke with county officials last year.
"It doesn't make a whole lot of sense," said Peterson. "Except if you're singling one group out over some other reason. It's an affront to the African-American community that flies in the face of all the people who fought for this holiday."
Abrams said Peterson's accusation that he was promised funding, "absolutely not true."
Abrams added, "The organizers of the breakfast were told in no uncertain terms before and after the budget that they would not receive money because they were [not a nonprofit] and did not fill out an application. Anyone can Google Anne Arundel County community grant and see that in June the breakfast wasn't funded. So I don't understand why it's a big story now."
When county officials announced they had eliminated the funding, Abrams cited the county auditor's report, which pointed out that the organization isn't a registered nonprofit. The report also mentions that the breakfast committee and another recipient — Sarah's House, a women's shelter that received a $15,000 grant in the last fiscal year — didn't submit the required grant application.
Teresa Sutherland, the county auditor, took issue with Abrams' emphasis on her report, and fired off a terse email to Abrams stating that she had simply pointed out the issue and had not explicitly instructed the county to stop funding the breakfast.
"I would like you to tell the press that the information you gave them was inaccurate. If the [Leopold administration] pulled the grant because they have criteria and MLK Breakfast doesn't meet it, then say so and be accountable for your decision. Don't blame me," Sutherland wrote.
In an interview, Abrams disputed the notion that the county relied on the report as its basis for denying the funding.
"I did not say that the auditor was the sole reason for denial," said Abrams. "The request was denied because the organizers did not submit an application after several requests from the admiration to do so."
Abrams said members of the auditor's staff met with county officials early last year and that's she's "splitting hairs."
"We can argue whether that was the focus of the report, or whatever, but the issues that were raised and the county agreed. They had every opportunity to remedy the situation prior to the budget."
Abrams added that the county had been "consistent" with its policy on funding for nonprofits.
Meanwhile, County Councilman Jamie Benoit, a Crownsville Democrat, introduced a resolution that was unanimously passed Monday by the council that recognized the accomplishments of the breakfast's eight honorees.
Benoit said it's an "important" event and he wanted to "acknowledge that."
"I question the timing of the announcement — two weeks before the breakfast," said Benoit. "A lot of people are upset."