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Howard Simon returns, tries to right ‘the good deal of turmoil’ inside the FL ACLU

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Howard Simon returns, tries to right ‘the good deal of turmoil’ inside the FL ACLU

Sep 25, 2023 | 7:00 am ET
By Mitch Perry
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Howard Simon returns, tries to right ‘the good deal of turmoil’ inside the FL ACLU
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Howard Simon. Credit: ACLU of Florida.

There’s been tumult inside the ACLU of Florida, the preeminent civil liberties group that has been defending civil rights of individuals in the courts, the Legislature, and the streets of Florida for nearly 60 years.

A series of events this spring and summer have shaken the nonprofit, with numerous board members ousted, an executive director gone within a year, and a subsequent lawsuit — filed by seven ousted board members — claiming the organization had drifted into partisan politics. An internal investigation described that previous board as being “chronically dysfunctional” and “not capable of leading the organization.”

Howard Simon, a longtime executive director of the organization who had been enjoying retirement, has agreed to come back to the Miami headquarters as interim executive director in hopes of repairing the damage.

“When they asked me to come back, I knew that there was a good deal of turmoil within the organization, to be honest about it,” Simon told the Phoenix in a phone interview from his home in Gainesville. (He and his wife moved there earlier this year after his now former home in Sanibel Island was destroyed last September by Hurricane Ian.)

“Although the turmoil was almost entirely at the governing level of the board of directors, not the staff, it was impacting the work of the staff,” Simon said. As he considered the two decades he had spent building up the ACLU of Florida into what he calls a “powerful” group challenging some of the policies from the Jeb Bush era through Rick Scott’s tenure, he says, he knew what he had to do.

“I couldn’t stand by idly and see the organization being weakened, so as reluctant as I was in [delaying] retirement with my wife, I didn’t hesitate to say yes.”

How did the organization unravel?

Tensions between the former board and staff go back to 2017, according to a lawsuit filed in Sarasota County on Aug. 11, 2023. There are seven board-member plaintiffs in the lawsuit. Here’s a timeline of developments:

March 2017. The national ACLU starts a campaign called “People Power” to organize at the grassroots level in response to the election of Donald Trump as president.

January 2022. Executive Director Micah Kubik leaves.  Tensions emerge following his exit between the ACLU-Florida staff and ACLU-Florida board according to the lawsuit, including disagreements about “mission drift” (describing how they believed the mission had moved away from core civil liberties issues), “micromanagement” by the board, and “disrespectful actions” by members of local chapter boards of directors. The lawsuit also cites conflict between staff and board members over the choice to succeed Kubik.

August 2022. Eight senior staff members submit a letter to ACLU-National requesting intervention by ACLU-National due to “long-standing, systemic problems at the Affiliate, including a flawed organizational structure and an adverse work environment,” according to a motion to dismiss filing submitted by the ACLU-Florida.

Later in the month, the ACLU-Florida executive committee authorized the hiring of independent legal counsel to investigate the tensions between the staff and board and the specific allegations brought forth by the ACLU-Florida staff.

December 2022. The ACLU-National informs the ACLU-Florida board that it will conduct a separate investigation into the disagreements between staff and board members.

March 2023. ACLU-National enacts a resolution to temporarily remove “all duly elected ACLU-FL’s directors.” Board member Eric Smaw remained to lead the board.  (The ACLU-Florida board now has three members — Smaw, Dr. Janet Taylor, and Michael Meyers. All three are listed as defendants in the lawsuit).

May 2023.  ACLU-National, through its national executive committee, adopts a second resolution to affirm “the removal of all Plaintiffs and other duly elected ACLU-FL directors.”

July 2023. The ACLU of Florida “is laying off 10 percent of its staff,” the Miami Herald reports. The paper quotes then ACLU-Florida Executive Director Tiffani Lennon as saying that “the ACLU of Florida increased its staff to meet ‘an unprecedented onslaught of attacks on civil rights and liberties’ in the state, but now finds itself needing to reduce its expenses by 20%.”

August 2023. Seven ousted ACLU of Florida board members file their lawsuit, alleging they were wrongfully removed by the national ACLU. The board members maintain that they were removed because they opposed the change in the mission towards what they saw as more partisan politics, which they claim began with the introduction of the People Power campaign in 2017.

The lawsuit reads, “Almost immediately after the launch of People Power, affiliates of the ACLU, including the ACLU-FL, experienced significant organizational problems that impacted both governance and management functions. These problems included, but were not limited to, People Power activists engaging in: partisan conduct under the name and logo of the ACLU in violations of longstanding policy; improper fundraising solicitations; and advocating support for non-civil liberties goals, including inter alia, socio-economic reforms.”

In an ACLU of Florida press release on Aug. 28, the organization “announced last Thursday that Executive Director Tiffani Lennon has resigned in order to return to Colorado to direct a new LGBTQ+ advocacy center.  Former ACLU of Florida Executive Director Howard Simon will return as Acting Interim Executive Director as a nationwide search for a permanent Executive Director is conducted.”

Simon responds

Simon told the Phoenix that the issue of “mission drift” was never raised by the board members as the conflict between the board and staff escalated in recent years.

“It played no role in the investigation and in their argument to the national organization,” he says. “It’s something that they entirely concocted after their removal, frankly, to cover up their own incompetence as a board of directors.”

Simon himself acknowledged the issue in a valedictory interview with the Phoenix in 2018, when he said the ACLU was trying to figure out how to “explore more work in the political arena without being partisan.”

He insists the ACLU is a political organization, but not partisan.

“We are a public-policy advocacy organization for the values in the bill of rights,” Simon said.

“Freedom of speech. Freedom of association. Freedom of the press. Religious freedom, and so on. Those are issues that are fought over in the political arena of state legislatures and Congress and so on. And we advance those values without being partisan. We are political without being partisan. We’ve never endorsed a candidate. We will never endorse a candidate. That’s not what we do. We’re a nonpartisan, public-policy advocacy organization. There is a distinction between being political and being partisan.”

Despite the challenges in the organization, Simon says, the organization isn’t going to slow down anytime soon.

“Part of what the policies of this governor are a challenge to the core values and the core principals of the ACLU,” he said. “Electoral democracy and the right to vote. The freedom to ride to read and think and so on, and then the assault on various minority groups and women and the right to an abortion. “

The ACLU of Florida is involved in at least seven lawsuits challenging proposals by Gov. Ron DeSantis and the Legislature, including the anti-immigration crackdown, the law banning certain Chinese citizens from purchasing land near military bases or other “critical infrastructure,” the restrictions on third-party voting registration groups, and the 15-week abortion ban (which would become a six-week ban if the Florida Supreme Court rules for the state).

There are more lawsuits in the works, he said, dealing with First Amendment issues such as library book censorship, curriculum censorship, and censorship of artistic exhibits.

In addition, the national ACLU came recently to Tallahassee to offer oral arguments regarding abortion bans and the privacy clause in Florida’s Constitution. The lead attorney was Whitney White, a staff attorney for the Reproductive Freedom Project with the ACLU in New York.

Simon says that while he will work most of the time from Gainesville, he’ll continue to journey to the ACLU’s headquarters in Miami as he drafts a strategic plan for the organization.

Ousted board member speaks

Michael Barfield — one of the seven ousted board members who have gone to court to win back their seats — served on the board for 16 years. He says Simon’s recollection isn’t accurate on the issue of mission drift.

“Howard wasn’t around the last five years in the organization because he had retired but, even before Howard left, there were multiple meetings – minutes that I could furnish – where we talked about mission drift,” he says.

Barfield contends that the investigation done by ACLU national wasn’t serious.

“The investigation was neither independent nor conducted in good faith,” he told the Phoenix. “Critically, they didn’t interview key leaders or those with knowledge about some of the anonymous allegations.” Barfield and his six other ousted board members also claim in the lawsuit that the national ACLU lacked authority to remove them.

In reference to laying off 10 percent of its staff this summer, Barfield said that he’s “informed that more are coming after the first of the year.”

However, the organization denies that.

“The ACLU of Florida does not have plans for any additional cuts in the months ahead,” says Gaby Guadalupe, director of communications for the ACLU of Florida.

Mike Pheneger served 30 years as a military intelligence officer in the U.S. Army. After he retired, he served on the ACLU of Florida’s board of directors for 25 years and twice as president. He admits he’s concerned about the direction of the organization. (He is not a part of the lawsuit.)

“I have always loved the ACLU for its steady focus on civil liberties and the Bill of Rights,” he told the Phoenix. “However, in recent years, I have been concerned that it has expanded to focus more on social justice issues, which have made it more political. I believe it was more effective when narrowly focused.”

Meanwhile, the lawsuit by the seven ousted board members will continue in Sarasota County. All hope to be reinstated.

“I love this organization,” says Barfield. “The ACLU I firmly believe is needed in this time more than ever, and it’s very sad that we have gone through this experience. But I’m also not a hypocrite and I stand up for what the ACLU stands up for: due process, liberty and justice, and we believe that the decision of national was wrong and the slippery slope into socioeconomic justice is equally wrong.”

ACLU attorneys filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit last week. In their filing, they wrote that the plaintiffs are asking the court to “improperly involve itself in the internal affairs of ACLU National and ACLU-FL after plaintiffs were justifiably removed as directors due to the ‘accelerating crisis [] decades in the making’ at ACLU-FL for which they were responsible.”

For his part, Pheneger is optimistic about the ACLU of Florida.

“I worked with Howard Simon during almost the entire time that he was with the ACLU of Florida,” he says. “His return may help set a lot of things right. He was a great executive director and an outstanding civil libertarian.”

CORRECTION: The original story listed an incorrect number of board members removed at ACLU-FL. Seven ousted board members have filed a lawsuit, but other board members have opted not to.