Sisters Kali Vagilistic X. P. Aladocious (left) and Raven Lunatic (right) chat Monday with Pride board co-chair Judi Schaim. Photo by Will Parson.
Ben Cartwright remembers scoping out his first San Diego Pride parade from behind a tree. Then a 17-year-old struggling with his sexual orientation, he watched in awe as crowds of people walked down University Avenue in Hillcrest, celebrating instead of concealing the fact that they were gay.
The experience rallied him to take a more active role in gay-rights groups, and Cartwright, 29, has served as a volunteer for more than a decade with Pride, a nonprofit group that focuses on uniting the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community. But this year, he almost cut ties with the organization in protest.
Last fall, Pride's volunteer board of directors voted to give board chairman Philip Princetta a $5,000 stipend and then fired Executive Director Ron deHarte after he complained that the gift was improper.
Following a public outcry, Princetta returned the money, but he and the two board members who voted for the stipend resisted calls to step down until they bowed out under pressure from a group of Democratic and openly gay politicians—state Sen. Christine Kehoe, San Diego Councilmember Todd Gloria and former San Diego City Councilmember Toni Atkins—in a closed meeting on Jan. 23.
An interim board, which includes some who'd previously served the board, was created, but Cartwright and many others are still reeling from the upheaval at the organization and wonder what this means for the nonprofit and community moving forward.
“It's tarnished the name and brand, and it's made a lot of people angry,” he said.
In an effort to move past the financial scandal, Pride's newly instated board of directors held a town-hall meeting Monday night at The Center in Hillcrest, urging the community to be patient as board members gain their footing and undertake the planning involved with the parade, which is the largest civic event in San Diego, drawing 160,000 spectators, and the two-day festival.
“We've needed to make sure our house is in order, our Pride home,” Judi Schaim, the board's new co-chair, told about 80 attendees. “We don't want to have missteps.”
Erring on the side of caution is likely to help Pride regain the community's trust, but that could take some time.
“Unfortunately, this incident has created a lot of factions,” Cartwright said. “People are not going to trust Pride like they used to. It will take them at least a year or so to get over this.”
Other activists feel personally betrayed and claim the scandal has put a black mark on the entire gay community.
“We are under such a microscope as it is. We are fighting for our lives and rights every day,” said Howard Menzer, who heads Scouting For All, a San Diego nonprofit that's focused on rooting out discrimination by Boy Scouts of America. “When an organization that is supposed to be backing us does things that are less than honest, it is putting a knife in our backs, and it hurts.”
Although the scandal has incited outrage, it's also given a glimpse into a divisive organization whose former members clashed over where the nonprofit should be headed.
Cartwright said he'd heard rumors that the board and deHarte had a contentious relationship. “Ron had a vision to grow the organization and move it into an organization that works year-round to promote equality, not just holds a party every summer,” he said.
The board members were resistant to plans to expand the group's activities but eventually came to support them, Cartwright said.
DeHarte and Princetta did not respond to requests seeking comment.
In October, three of five board members waived a bylaw that prohibits directors from receiving compensation and voted to give Princetta a $5,000 stipend for devoting thousands of hours to the nonprofit. One member opposed the move, and Princetta abstained from the vote. In December, two board members resigned, leaving behind Princetta and two board members who approved the stipend.
Nicole Murray-Ramirez, co-founder of Pride's first event in 1974, agreed that deHarte and the board already didn't get along and said the dispute over the $5,000 further strained relations. DeHarte, who criticized the stipend as a misappropriation of funds, in early January sought Murray-Ramirez's advice on what to do about the money.
“When you're on a nonprofit board, you are a volunteer. Staff is paid, but board members are volunteers and don't get paid. This was unacceptable,” Murray-Ramirez said.
Taking Murray-Ramirez's advice, deHarte wrote a letter urging that the money be returned and the board members resign. A day after sending the letter, deHarte was fired, Murray-Ramirez said.
Murray-Ramirez said that Princetta and the other board members told him that deHarte had received $20,000 in bonuses since he became Pride's executive director in 2006. When Murray-Ramirez confronted deHarte about the bonuses, he didn't deny receiving them. “They all pointed fingers at one another while having a hand in the cookie jar,” he said.
When Princetta and the other board members announced they had no intention of resigning, the stand-off drew calls for them to step down and prompted Kehoe, Gloria and Atkins to take action.
Gloria said he was reluctant to get involved at first because he felt it was important for the community to resolve the conflict on its own, but it became clear that the board members weren't going anywhere and there was a real threat that the parade and festival wouldn't occur unless something was done.
“Leaders of the community and grassroots supporters were saying they could not support Pride under the leadership [at the time] and wanted to see a change,” Gloria said. “As our community's largest event, Pride is too important for it not to happen.”
Although Gloria said the politicians didn't have controlling legal authority over the organization, they hoped that their role as elected officials would persuade the board members to resign.
“It was an extremely difficult meeting,” Atkins said. “We expressed concern about what they were trying to do and said what needs to happen is for Pride to move on and to reestablish itself.”
While the board members ultimately agreed to step down, Kehoe pointed out other concerns over how the organization was being run, including Pride's purchase of a new building in North Park for more than $1 million without seeking feedback from the public, as well as the state of the board, which can have up to 20 members but dwindled to three by December.
“We believe the board had lost its sense of responsibility to the community and a fresh start was necessary,” Kehoe said in a written statement after the Jan. 23 meeting. (She was unavailable for an interview for this story.)
During the Monday meeting, Schaim, the board's co-chair, said the new board is committed to transparency and open to bringing in a more diverse set of board members. She acknowledged that most of the nine interim board members are “well over 45 and white.”
Although many community members believe the new board will help restore faith in Pride, they differed over whether the organization should stay focused on the summer parade and festival or extend its activities throughout the year.
“The organization should focus on the Pride event and make it spectacular,” said activist Sister Kali Vagilistic X.P. Aladocious. “Going to the Pride event fires people up to join a nonprofit and makes them proud to want to give back.”
Pam Schwartz, a former board member, said Pride would be better off concentrating on the parade and festival, in order to raise as much money as it can to give back to the community, and running the organization more like a business.
The current board members have indicated that they intend to direct most of their efforts to the summer event, but the younger generation has a bigger vision of what Pride should be doing, Cartwright said.
“Why just do one weekend of the year and hold the event in Hillcrest, where you are preaching to the choir?” Cartwright asked. “We see Pride as a springboard. We have a great opportunity to spread the message of equality countywide.”
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