June 25 2014 11:11 AM

Did Carl DeMaio's partner overstep his authority by ousting business-association chief?

Johnathan Hale
Johnathan Hale pulls the plug on Sonya Stauffer.
Photo illustration by John R. Lamb

"Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man's character, give him power."

—Abraham Lincoln

Nicole Murray Ramirez, dubbed the "Mayor of Hillcrest" last year by San Diego City Council President Todd Gloria, couldn't believe his ears.

"Jesus!" he whispered to Spin Cycle during last week's raucous board meeting of the Hillcrest Business Association (HBA), the city's oldest business alliance. The association, founded in 1921, has seen its share of brouhahas throughout the years. But this one, it seems, may take the cake.

"I think I'd just declare a monarchy—and name myself queen!" Ramirez said with a laugh when asked for his remedy.

At the heart of the latest kerfuffle is the status of the HBA's executive director, Sonya Stauffer, who left a depressed real-estate industry last year to take on the reins of an organization known more for the events it oversees— CityFest, Hillcrest Farmers Market, Hillcrest Hoedown, the Pride Block Party, to name a few—than its role as the city-sanctioned representative of some 1,300 businesses in the area.

Stauffer alleges that she was summarily fired on June 5 by the association's president, San Diego Gay & Lesbian News publisher Johnathan Hale, for reasons that remain uncertain. Hale replaced her, he announced at the meeting, with her predecessor, Benjamin Nicholls, who'd departed last October to work for a local promotion company that puts on some of Hillcrest's annual events.

At last week's meeting, Stauffer stood up in the audience to declare that she still considers herself the HBA's executive director because Hale, she said, acted in violation of the organization's bylaws by firing her "without board knowledge or a board vote."

In an interview later, Stauffer said Hale's meddling on a daily basis made the job of the association's three-member staff a "downward spiral" of unmanageability. "Business last, politics first," is how she put it.

Stauffer has filed a complaint with the state Attorney General's office, alleging that "the president has been running this nonprofit as a dictatorship and not informing the board of his activities." In the process, she claimed, he violated the HBA's bylaws, federal disability laws and state open-meeting laws.

Hale, in the meantime, has referred all media inquiries to "interim director" Nicholls, who denied all of Stauffer's allegations, including that she was fired. After last week's meeting, Hale declined to address the allegations, only noting that there's been "a target on my back for years." His relationship with former San Diego City Councilmember Carl DeMaio, who's now seeking Scott Peters' congressional seat, has drawn local and national attention.

On June 5, Stauffer said Hale arrived at the HBA's Fifth Avenue office after a phone call during which he said he'd be there in 15 minutes to terminate her. "He came into the office, took my keys and unplugged my computer— pulled the power cord out of the back!—for the ‘safety of the organization' and told me to get my things and get out," she said.

She said he then followed her out to the parking lot and, during the course of what she described as a bizarre hour-and-a-half, tried to return her office key. "He was in my car door, and I'm telling him I want to go home, and he's trying to give me my key back. He knew what he had done was wrong. He was panicked.

"He tends to make knee-jerk decisions in a state of being angry and then is sorry later," Stauffer said.

HBA board members sat quietly during last week's meeting, but longtime member Glenn Younger told Spin later he believes the organization's bylaws back up Hale's decision to fire Stauffer. "Johnathan Hale is a lightning rod for people who do not like the idea of his gay Republican partner," he said in an email. "Most of that stuff is theater. In Hillcrest if you don't agree with someone's politics, then you're evil."

Added Younger: "Johnathan has the authority to make decisions in the day-to-day running of the organization, up to and including termination."

Not everyone's so sure. Pat Libby, director of the University of San Diego's Institute for Nonprofit Education and Research, said such action by an individual board member is "highly unusual. It is not a best practice. Is it good governance? It is not.

"I'm not saying it's illegal— I'm not an attorney," she added. "But the most valued asset held by a nonprofit is its reputation. It's incumbent upon all organizations to understand that they represent not only their own interests but for the nonprofit sector as a whole."

Stauffer said she's not received any formal notice of her termination. Nicholls told Spin that "she was never terminated. I think there was an intent to terminate her, but she handed over her keys and credit card and didn't come back to work." He said she was given "multiple opportunities to come back."

Stauffer laughed at that claim and said she has a theory of her own—that Nicholls, who parted ways with McFarlane Promotions in March, wanted his old job back. Nicholls denied that he helped orchestrate her firing.

"We have some big events upcoming, and the board needed some leadership. So they gave me a call," Nicholls said. He even blamed Stauffer for Hale's insistence that some committee meetings be held at his Hale Media offices on University Avenue in a building that's not compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

But committee agendas prior to Stauffer's hiring show that practice also occurred during Nicholls' tenure, even though he insisted that those were simply "ad hoc gatherings."

"I really love the HBA," Nicholls said. "I hate to see it pulled apart like this." He acknowledged that Hillcrest is ripe with characters, including Hale, but that "the death of neighborhoods is a lack of character. It's time to move on."

Stauffer said she won't back down. "I've dealt with politics," she said, "but never anything like this."

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