The web page for the Pennsylvania Governor’s Advisory Commission on African American Affairs still lists all its initiatives, and still pictures of Executive Director Sonya Toler.
But like many things on the Internet, it isn’t real. The office and Toler are both gone. She has returned to journalism, and the commission—along with those on Asian Affairs, Hispanic Affairs and Women and Girls—has been consolidated into the Office of Public Liaison.
The liaison office is headed by Gov. Tom Corbett’s Deputy Chief of Staff Luke Bernstein, former staffer for both U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum and an advisor to the U.S. Treasury Department under President George W. Bush.
Bernstein could not be reached for comment, but Corbett spokesman Kevin Harley said the consolidation was one of many administration-wide cost cutting and streamlining measures implemented to address a $4.2 billion budget deficit.
“The decision to consolidate operations was based on our analysis, which found that the vast majority of the commission’s expenditures were directed to overhead costs—not actual constituent service,” he said. “In our extensive review, we found that personnel and administrative expenditures accounted for more than 90 percent of the (FY 2010-2011) budget for the Governor’s Advisory Commission on African American Affairs.” Toler, in Philadelphia, said she believes the consolidations are counterproductive.
“It’s not a positive consolidation in that there is a problem with access to state government in general that is magnified with minority constituencies,” she said. “It is not something that can easily be done by someone who doesn’t understand your community.”
In addition to advising the governor on policies affecting African-Americans, the commission was largely responsible for making sure applicable services were delivered to individuals, nonprofits and businesses. In some cases, Toler said, that meant being a fundraiser.
“In 2008 we held a Minority Business Summit in Harrisburg to provide information for African-American entrepreneurs. I had to raise $60,000 to do that,” she said. “One of the speakers was Jerome Shabazz from Philadelphia, who educated attendees on how he secured two ‘Growing Greener’ grants.”
Toler added, however, that much of what the commission’s work did, did not require much money. In most cases it was about adjusting policy and regulations.
“A man who passed the state Real Estate Broker’s test, but was denied because of his educational background,” she said. “He didn’t have a four-year real estate degree, he had an MBA focused on real estate, from the University of Pennsylvania. A focused graduate degree we said should qualify, and they changed the rule. That was a policy thing that didn’t cost a dime.”
African American Chamber of Commerce of Western Pennsylvania President and CEO Doris Carson Williams said she is willing to wait and see whether or not the consolidation actually means the administration does not find the commission’s former task significant.
“The commission did advocacy within the administration. It would appear that outreach to strengthen relations with the African-American community is now on the back burner,” she said.
As for closing the commissions as a cost cutting measure, most were operating on such shoestring budgets that they only had an executive director. Thanks to what she called her “fiscal restraint,” Toler was able to keep her Deputy Director Jennifer Kyung on board.
Black Political Empowerment Project Director Tim Stevens said he does not see how the Office of Public Liaison could have the focus that Toler did.
“It’s unfortunate, especially for African-Americans in Pittsburgh who, according to one report, have the highest unemployment in the nation,” he said. “It’s not the time to shut that commission down.
Harley said the commission was not “shut down.” He said new staffing for the Liaison Office would depend on how the final budget authorization turns out. The final budget should be in place July 1. Currently there is no staffing.
“We regard all callers’ concerns as equally important, regardless of the issue on which they are calling,” he said. “Each and every inquiry is important to us and we strive to handle them as expeditiously as possible. We are confident that the Office of Public Liaison will be able to meet the needs of the citizens we serve.”
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