Six months after Jacksonville’s Kids Hope Alliance’s CEO was placed on administrative leave, interim CEO Donnie Horner III announced his resignation to the children’s welfare agency’s board Wednesday.
“It was a challenging decision for me, and I hold this organization in the highest regard, and I hold its people in the highest regard,” Horner said in front of the staff and board. “I want to tell you what an honor it has been for me.”
This comes after CEO Joe Peppers was placed on administrative leave in August following a memo in which he accused officials from Mayor Lenny Curry’s office of pressuring him to give grants to preferred applicants, according to WJCT News partner The Florida Times-Union.
Horner joined KHA in 2019 as communications director. Within a few months, he transitioned to the role of Chief Operating Officer before Peppers took administrative leave. In Peppers' absence, Horner served as both COO and CEO.
The organization’s board members will decide over the next two weeks who will take over for Horner, who is leaving to take a position as Major Gifts Officer with the nonprofit K9s for Warriors.
“This is a moment for us to kind of recalibrate,” said board Chair Kevin Gay. “But I think it's important in the very beginning, too, that we don't miss the fact that there's a tremendous amount of really good momentum taking place.”
The board discussed whether to promote from within or look outside the organization for the next CEO.
“I personally think it's premature to talk about searches,” said board member Barbara Darby. “Because we have an unresolved issue. We have a CEO, who is on administrative leave, and any discussion about a search says we've made a decision about that CEO already, and we have not done that.”
Gay said the investigation into Peppers’ allegations by the city inspector general’s office is expected to wrap up in five to seven weeks, but it could be longer before the board sees a report on the findings.
“It has been very frustrating for me, for all the partners and everybody to have this continued, you know, cloud, if you will, hanging over,” Gay said. “We need to move forward.”
Horner endorsed KHA Chief Programs Officer Saralyn Grass to take over as acting CEO. She’s been in the role since August.
“Dr. Grass has been my rock when it comes to child service programs,” Horner said. “She has selflessly answered all of the questions that I've had. She has gladly accepted all the responsibility that I have given her. She has been a sounding board for me.”
But some KHA staffers suggested the board look past the executive staff and more toward people who have been there during multiple transitions.
“I feel like we don't really have adequate feedback to give and our honest level of expertise and experience is not considered when decisions are being made,” said Katoia Wilkins, director of the Juvenile Justice program at KHA. “I really feel like there are other people in the organization that can continue in that path, be the one that would be the acting CEO, and interim CEO while the full-time CEO is searched for.”
KHA Director of Communications Travis Williams said many decisions have been made “to the staff and not with the staff.”
The board also floated the idea of a member’s resigning from the board to head the organization while they await the results of the investigation.
Horner said he could stay until February 19, the day of the board’s next scheduled meeting, when they will announce the new acting CEO.