Downtown Association group restructuring raises concerns

By Sarah Brown
Lebanon Local

The Lebanon Downtown Association is undergoing an overhaul as members restructure the executive board, cut events from its plate and scrutinize legal filings that have it in hot water, but some locals question new board members’ ultimate motives.
Dala Johnson, a former executive board member until 2018, said she returned to the nonprofit at the beginning of 2023 in an effort to straighten out legal and organizational problems it was having. The board, she said, had not maintained filings with the Internal Revenue Service and Department of Justice, and had lost its status as a nonprofit entity.
As such, it also was at risk of losing good faith with Oregon Main Street (through Main Street America), a relationship Johnson said she had worked hard in the beginning to foster. But as a restructuring of the board removed people of color and LGBTQ advocates, some went on social media to express their consternation.
“Nobody’s against anything,” Johnson said of the new board. “We’re trying to do things the right way from the standpoint of business and taking care of the LDA. It’s nothing personal.”

Jeannie Davis, left, and Dala Johnson update city council during its June meeting. Screenshot taken from YouTube

At the time Johnson stepped in to help, Jeannie Davis was president, Gamael Nassar was vice president, Brittany Nassar was secretary and Cody Zuniga was treasurer. During its June meeting, Davis stepped down as president, and both Nassars were voted off the board because, according to Johnson, they often missed meetings or weren’t performing the duties of their job. On that day, the Nassars were absent and the board said no one was informed the pair would not be at the meeting.
New board members were voted into the empty seats: Shellie Jackola as president and Shannon Miller as vice president, while Davis took over as secretary. Almost two weeks later, Davis reported she was asked to step off the board because LDA couldn’t clean up the nonprofit status while old board members were still active.
The new board also voted to remove three events from its workload this year: Brews and Bands, Saturday Market and a pride event.
“It has nothing to do with anything other than our concentration has to be on getting legal again,” Johnson said.
What’s more, without legal standing as a nonprofit, LDA’s hands are tied to act as a funding pass-through for the events, Miller said. Businesses, people and grants fund the nonprofit’s activities, and part of the benefit to doing that is receiving a tax write-off. That relationship is cut off until LDA can regain an active nonprofit status. Plus, there’s currently no Main Street Manager to help do the work.
“Let us clean this up, and then when we’re strong and we have the capability to do these awesome things, then we’ll do them,” Miller said.

Brittany Nassar participates in last year’s First Friday 1950s pinup contest, which was organized by the downtown association.

Brittany said she felt “disheartened” when she learned she was voted off during her absence. It wasn’t just about being voted off that disturbed her; it was also the fact it happened on Juneteenth – a new federal holiday that observes the emancipation of slaves – during which time her and her father, Gamael, were at an Albany Juneteenth event.
“I wasn’t communicated with,” Brittany said. “It was pretty frustrating that that was on that day, Juneteenth, because that day’s supposed to be about equality and representation.”
But both Johnson and Davis agreed the board meeting took place at its regularly scheduled time, which happened to fall on the holiday, and despite repeated reminders of the upcoming meeting, none were informed the two would be absent.
Furthermore, Brittany often stands in as a representative for Lebanon’s LGBTQ community.
“I’m not sure the (new) board has the same representation that it did before,” she said. “Not necessarily specifically for pride, but just in general, like different kinds of businesses and different kinds of struggles that people experience throughout town and want equal representation. Equity is really important.”
The new leaders maintain the changes have nothing to do with race or sexuality and everything to do with fixing the organization’s legal problems and building up a board that will perform the duties of their jobs.
“I just have issues with any of the (past) board members,” Johnson said. “I just want to go to them and say, ‘How could you let this happen?’”
Lebanon has experienced controversy in recent months over last year’s mayoral decision regarding a pride proclamation, and the following electoral race.

People play under a colorful and large parachute during Lebanon’s first Pride Day event in 2022.

In Spring 2022, then-LDA Main Street Manager Cassie Cruze and downtown business owner Brittany Nassar were part of a group requesting then-mayor Paul Aziz to make a proclamation for June’s Pride Month. He denied the request on the grounds that it took away from Strawberry Festival and singled out a specific set of people. While many in the community expressed support for Aziz’s stance, many others were unhappy with it.
The following election cycle in November included a race for the mayor’s seat between Kenneth Jackola and Gamael Nassar, both downtown business owners. Shortly after Jackola won the election, Cruze stepped down as Main Street Manager because, she said, an opportunity for a more financially stable job presented itself elsewhere.
As the new mayor, Jackola followed his predecessor’s path by announcing he will not make proclamations for any holiday, observation or event.
Around the same time, the City of Lebanon’s budget season approached, during which time it had to shave off $1.2 million and it came to City Council’s attention that the LDA was noncompliant with its legal filings. As such, the council made it clear during public council meetings that LDA needed to be in good standing again before they would agree to hand money over to the organization.
According to Finance Director Brandon Neish, the City of Lebanon began funding the LDA in 2017 with $8,000 and increased in 2019 to $25,000, earmarked to the Main Street Manager. No funds were provided during 2020 due to a lack of revenue from COVID-19. In 2022, it funded $30,000.
But, Davis said, all events through LDA were funded through grants and sponsorships. Money from the city was for the support of a Main Street Manager, she said.
“I don’t blame them,” Johnson said. “We’re dealing with somebody else’s money here. We finally got together as a board and said enough is enough. We have to be held accountable for where we are now. Nothing has been filed (since I left). No IRS stuff, no 990s, no CT-12. Nothing.”
According to both Johnson, Jackola and Miller, as Cruze left LDA and new board members came on-scene, the board made repeated requests for financials and minutes from the past five years in order to straighten out the legal mess.
“We got nothing,” Johnson said, who added she’s only seen one set of minutes since her return.
“We are broken right now, and I really feel adament about this: the previous board has to be held accountable for what they did,” she said. “That is just my opinion. We’re just trying to dig the last five years out. It’s like pulling teeth when you’re asking for records and asking for stuff and you’re not getting anybody to be responding to you to give you this information. It’s just ridiculous.”
Board members said they also struggled to obtain access to a Google drive, the LDA website and social media accounts.
“We got an empty file cabinet,” Jackola said. “There’s not one piece of paper in it.”
They also have yet to receive the organization’s laptop, Miller said.
“Everything is like this fight to get stuff,” Miller said. “We just want to clean up this mess.”
Brittany Nassar’s take on the matter is a little different, saying the board has access to the Google drive where all those files are located. Lebanon Local received access to the drive from Jackola and found minutes from 2019 to 2023, though some years have missing minutes.
“This previous board, they need to own this mistake,” Johnson said. “I don’t want to put blame anywhere other than to say, ‘Just own it.’ Just come forward and say, ‘We messed up, here’s the paperwork you need, here’s all the stuff you need.’”
While no one wanted to point the finger at any one individual for LDA’s struggles, Johnson and Nassar said Cruze was taking on responsibilities that should have fallen to the board, and former LDA president Yvette Meyer may have dropped the ball when it came to maintaining the legal paperwork.
“From my eyes, now understanding, I can see that Cassie wasn’t ever given the full tools of what she was supposed to be able to do, and then had to take on other peoples’ jobs,” Nassar said. “I don’t really want to even blame Yvette, but Yvette is really a main piece of why it fell apart. She said she was handling a lot of things for a really long time, like the paperwork with the DOJ or the 501c3 paperwork or the bank account, any of that stuff. Every time she said it was a certain way, we’d go look and it wouldn’t be a certain way.
“Yvette is an incredibly busy human, too, so trying to get any of those materials and details out of her is kind of like pulling teeth.”
Davis added that Meyer did what she knew she had to do, but no one else on the board was privy to what paperwork requirements were being requested.
“We didn’t have good board training. We were just kind of appointed or asked,” said Davis, who noted she was asked to be interim president until one could be voted on, but the vote never happened for two years.
“We didn’t have transition,” she said. “People were just given that role because nobody else was there.”
Following the June city council meeting, during which Davis presented updates on its legal status and the council requested more information, she was ready to “check out.”
“We’re all volunteers,” she said. “We come to do this because we love Lebanon, we love Main Street; not to be beat up. I don’t do well with conflict.”
What it came down to, she said, was that the presidency was a position she was not ready for, so she stepped down.

Former LDA Main Street Manager Cassie Cruze speaks during the 2022 Pride Day event, which she helped organize.

Community perception of the new board’s structure was also affected by its removal of a pride event, the first of which was organized by Cruze under the LDA umbrella last year.
“I asked Cassie (after she left LDA) to take over Pride Day,” Davis said. “The (LDA) promotions committee didn’t really have the volunteer capacity. Cassie did it last year and it ran well, so I asked her to take over that leadership for Pride Day.”
According to Davis, as the board began trying to iron out its legal status, she and Cruze approached United Way to see if that organization would act as the fiscal representative for the event this year. During that conversation, Davis posed a question about United Way also acting as fiscal representative for LDA. She later mentioned that idea to the City Council in June before she brought it to her board.
Davis admitted she went about it the wrong way. Johnson said she was surprised by the revelation, and even told Davis she had no right to make decisions like that with a former LDA manager (Cruze) and not the board itself.
Further muddying the waters of perception is the fact that the Jackolas, who now have positions of leadership as mayor and LDA president, have received funding through LDA for what is, essentially, their residence. In 2022, the Jackolas received $100,000 from a LDA revitalization grant (funded through the Oregon Main Street Program) for the remodeling of downtown property they own, namely the Courtney Building’s second story where they live.
Though Davis said she does not believe the Jackolas are intentionally using their positions to benefit themselves financially, she said it just looks bad and may be a conflict of interest.
Participants seem to share a common desire to do what’s right for the Lebanon Downtown Association. One camp wants continued support and representation for the LGBTQ community, while the other camp wants to focus on healing the organization before taking on extra responsibilities.
“The only thing we’re trying to do is correct something that is really broken right now,” Shellie Jackola said. “It’s not a personal vendetta against anybody.”

Shannon Miller, right, pours a drink during this year’s First Friday Cinco de Mayo event. Miller owns Bloom Boutique and Tea House, which is operated out of a building owned by the Jackolas.

Some say they are uncomfortable with a family that owns several downtown businesses being on a board that provides funding for their buildings (Miller and other relatives own businesses downtown, as well). Yet both camps can agree the LDA’s mission is for Lebanon’s economic vitality through preservation of downtown businesses and the city’s historic heritage.
“I feel like every human on our board is there because they love downtown,” Davis said. “The whole bickering about my bubble or your bubble, that has nothing to do with what we’re doing downtown. Our mission is to bring people downtown to make downtown friendly, welcoming and family friendly for everybody. I think everybody on the board is looking that direction, regardless of who they’re associated with.”
Meanwhile, the current board tries to get right with the state and find peace in the midst of a social kerfuffle.
“We may take some guff for it, but I think for the downtown association, for our community, that’s what we’re doing it for,” Johnson said. “We’re moving forward in a positive direction.”