by Michael Aaron and Bob Henline
To say that the last several weeks have been difficult for leaders and staff at the Utah Pride Center would be quite the understatement. Since it was announced that the Center was financially strapped and had to lay off two staff members and reduce salary and benefits for those remaining, the lid blew off the teapot, revealing much more than simple cost reduction measures. It revealed a dissatisfied community, an organization filled with secrets and power struggles, and what looked like a witch hunt for the executive director.
This is a story we have been working for about six months, but were finding it difficult to get anyone to go on the record. The layoffs, however, opened the Center and its leadership to a new level of scrutiny and emboldened once-quiet members in the community to stand up and say what they believed are the problems of the Center.
Trouble and dissent have been brewing under the surface at Utah Pride for months. This dissension was brought to the attention of QSaltLake around the same time that the public learned of the “uninviting” of Joe Jervis as a grand marshal for the 2013 Utah Pride Parade and Festival.
It was reported to QSaltLake that at one time there were three outstanding invitations for the honor and that one board member was verbally chastised in front of the Pride Center staff by then executive director Valerie Larabee for expressing his concern that the organization would look foolish if all three invitees were to accept. In the end, David Testo and Joe Jervis accepted, but Jervis’ invite was retracted by Larabee.
Blogger Tony Adams wrote that Larabee had retracted the invitation due to the opposition of “one young gay man” on Utah Pride’s board of directors, who, she claimed, felt that Jervis would be an insult to Mormons. Upon further questioning, Larabee intimated that this episode was less about Jervis than it was a personal attack against her, Adams reported.
The “dissident” board member has since been identified by several sources as Jesse Nix. There has never, however, been confirmation that he was opposed to Joe Jervis’ invitation to be grand marshal.
Nix, during a board meeting, called for a performance evaluation on Larabee, as the bylaws state that is a responsibility of the board and one which hadn’t been done in years. That evaluation still was not performed prior to her resignation, nearly six months later.
It has also been confirmed that, shortly after the 2013 Pride Festival, Larabee and then-board president Nikki Boyer attempted to remove Nix from the board. Board members Marva Match and Ken Kimball (who recently resigned from the board), under their direction, took Nix to brunch and asked for his resignation. Nix declined.
Secrecy was key in the organization. Board meetings were not made public, staff were told not to speak to board members and vice versa.
Problems with Pride Center management came to a head last month. Director of Operations Joe Gonzalez and Director of SAGE/Community Engagement Charles Frost were laid off for “budgetary reasons,” according to the Pride Center board. These layoffs generated an enormous public backlash and set off a chain of events that resulted in the resignation of Valerie Larabee on November 13.
In an Oct. 21 meeting, staff were told that there was a cash-flow crisis and that changes were needed in order to keep the Center afloat beyond February, 2014. According to newly elected interim board president John Netto, Larabee was tasked to find areas from which to cut, within a set of parameters provided by the board executive committee. Larabee recommended the elimination of both Frost’s and Gonzalez’ positions as well as cuts in salaries and benefits for other staff, including her. According to the minutes of a board meeting held on October 28, those cuts included salary, benefits, and the elimination of 401(k) matching contributions.
Following the layoffs, several community meetings were held at the Center, during which Netto and Larabee referenced an accounting error which resulted in less cash being available than was believed. In an interview on November 15, Netto backed away from that position and stated that the discrepancy resulted was more the result of “different accounting practices” that did not provide the “visibility” needed to properly manage center operations.
Who is John Netto?
Netto, a long-time activist for homeless issues and community ally in Salt Lake City, is the acting president of the board and, according to him, the person primarily responsible for cleaning up this “turd pile,” as he put it. Netto first joined the board in February, 2011, but stepped aside earlier this year due to a potential conflict of interest. His company, K-Nowbe, was doing engineering work on the new Utah Pride headquarters.
Netto was asked by Boyer to return to the board in August of this year. On Oct. 28 he became acting president. Board vice president Jon Jepsen had tendered his resignation from that office earlier in October, effective as of the 28th (the date of the scheduled board meeting). Netto was elected vice president in his place. Following that election Boyer resigned as president, elevating Netto to acting presidency.
It is unknown why the election occurred in this manner, it was done in a closed session meeting from which QSaltLake was purposely excluded, contrary to the public meeting requirement of the group’s bylaws.
In the wake of public outcry regarding this improper exclusion of the public and the press, Netto tasked Nix to draft a paper on whether QSaltLake was improperly excluded from the meeting and Nix wrote that the exclusion was improper. Netto publicly apologized for the error in the first community meeting.
Nix was also asked to prepare a “transparency plan” for the organization and Netto publicly stated his commitment to organizational transparency. That commitment was again called into doubt as the board called a “special meeting” Nov. 11, again in violation of the Center’s bylaws which require that each director be notified by phone “at least one (1) day before the meeting.” QSaltLake learned of the meeting minutes before it started through a rumor and managed to attend, even though no public notice of the meeting was ever provided.
Nix verbally presented several aspects of the plan at a meeting on November 13. Once the board approves the language, it will be posted online for public comment.
Three separate meetings, which Center leaders are calling “talking circles,” have taken place at the Center regarding the issues.
The first, on Oct. 30, was centered around SAGE and how the Center was proposing to continue the program without Frost. But, in a misstep, Center leaders neglected to invite the SAGE Advisory Board to the meeting and had misstated the meeting’s date on an email that went to the SAGE email list. The correct date was published by QSaltLake and it was only here that the board knew of the meeting.
Very pointed concerns were raised of the importance of SAGE, the fact it was on the cusp of being incredibly successful, beyond its current successes, and that the community was skeptical the group could continue without a full-time program director.
“Leadership of SAGE is a full-time job. There are a million issues out there and we need SAGE to be stronger, and I’m worried about it being weaker,” SAGE Advisory Board member David Andreason said.
Netto and Larabee emphatically told the crowd that the SAGE program was important to the Center and that existing staff would be able to “step up” and cover the role Frost once had.
Many community members complained of a lack of transparency in the organization and said that the Center has a “P.R. problem.” Many called for Larabee’s removal.
Netto explained that mistakes were made in Center leadership.
“Mistakes were made; visibility lost; priorities were out of line with the needs of the community; there were unattentive board members,” he said. “Since I was made president, I’ve gotten hundreds of angry emails and my phone has been ringing off the hook. But, what this shows me is that what we are doing matters to people.”
He stood by Larabee, saying he has faith in her ability to learn and grow and that she is the right person to stay in the job.
“You have my commitment to a totally transparent Center from this point forward,” he said.
By the second meeting, Nov. 6, it was clear that the community was not placated by his assurances.
The SAGE Advisory Board, who again was not invited to the meeting and found out through word of mouth, drafted a letter saying “trust has been severely compromised over the last year, but more specifically, no one on the Sage Advisory Committee felt they held any trust or confidence in the management or leadership capacity of the Utah Pride Center.”
They proposed to split the program from the Center.
And the anti-Larabee sentiment reached new levels with more people calling for her resignation.
“I am astonished at [Larabee’s] ability to evade any responsibility and for everyone to circle the wagons around her,” Williams said. “It should terrify the board of directors that the director of the community center is in such constant conflict with so many people in the community. That should terrify you.”
“Valerie Larabee is not all of the problem at Utah Pride,” Netto answered. “If she were, that would be an easy fix… I have a disagreement with those who want to fire Val.”
Emergency Board Meeting
Days later, an emergency board meeting was called when a “collective vote of no-confidence” was delivered to Netto through a letter drafted by former Center staff member Jennifer Nuttall and signed by dozens of former board members, former staff and community leaders.
“The issues with the leadership of the Utah Pride Center are deep-seated, long standing, and have caused mistrust that must be addressed,” the letter stated. “It is time to break the silence of our collective negative experiences and let our voices be heard, so that the community can move forward.”
The board took no action in that meeting.
Because of that, former board member Allen Miller made public a letter he presented when he resigned from the board. He had promised not to release it on the assurance that the board would do a performance audit on Larabee. That was in September.
Miller claimed that the “organization financials are generally unavailable to board members.”
“As a member of the board finance committee, I have not seen a complete set of UP financials in over a year,” he said.
He was also scathing towards Larabee’s leadership style.
The following morning, Nov. 13, Larabee gave Netto a letter of resignation.
“I’m so very grateful for the opportunity to serve as a part of this vital organization for the last nine years. I’m humbled by the passion, dedication and support of so many. Our accomplishments over the years have been anchored by an incredible array of donors, volunteers and staff. Change is a vital part of life for both organizations and individuals. I will hold Utah Pride in my heart forever,” she wrote.
The board released a statement to the media, announcing the resignation and wrote, “We celebrate the accomplishments of the Utah Pride Center under Valerie’s leadership. Along with the hard working staff and thousands of volunteers over these past nine years, she has been a powerful advocate for the LGBTQ community. Her passion is evident. She has put Salt Lake City on the map as a national leader in the LGBTQ movement.”
A New Day at Utah Pride
The staff approached Netto and requested that Larabee’s duties be divided among several staff members until a new executive director is chosen, rather than an interim director be named. He agreed.
The third meeting, which happened the night of Larabee’s resignation, was much more structured and organized in a way to find a path forward for the Center. Director of events Megan Risbon asked for community suggestions, which were then recorded on large sheets of paper. The conversation was kept to “moving forward” with constructive ways to build the Center to be what the community wanted.
“It’s a new day at Utah Pride,” she said on more than one occasion.
Since the meetings happened, several promises, such as contact information for board members and bylaws being posted on the website, have been kept. Board meetings have also been put on the site’s calendar.
Netto stood by his promise to have the financials available within 30 days of the first community meeting. He said he is dedicated to raising the money in the next month to have Utah Pride break even for the year.
“Raising money was not the priority it should be,” he said. “I am determined we will get there.”
He is also confident that the capital campaign to raise funds to renovate the building will be successful, even going as far as to say it could happen before next year’s Pride.
Risbon said that a fundraising appeal has been planned and will move forward within the next week or so.
She also appealed to the community to get involved with the Center.
Asked what the goals were for 2014, Risbon said “this year will be the most successful Pride ever.” Netto said the capital campaign will be fully funded, that a full financial recovery will happen by Pride, that the Center will be restabalized and staff pay can be returned to the levels they were before the layoffs. The rainy day fund, he said, which is down to $75,000 will be replenished to $125,000.
He also said there will be visibility at all levels of the organization and that it will soar, operationally.
Netto sees himself as an “interim chair” of the organization. He wants to get in, get things fixed, and then let someone else take the helm.
“I want to be a cheerleader for this organization,” he said.
Meanwhile, he said he is working to make the Center what the community wants and he is listening to all of those most critical of the organization.
“Every naysayer is being approached,” he said. “I want to open dialog with those most critical of us. I believe it is a gift to be told what is wrong. That is the only way we’ll know what needs to be fixed.
Risbon also promised a more friendly and inviting lobby, more responsiveness to people wanting to volunteer.
“I think it’s important to tell people what contributions Valerie made to this organization,” Netto said. “She took this from a $45,000 organization with one and a half employees to over $2 million in revenues and owning its own building.”
“Valerie poured her heart and soul into this Center and it became her and she became it,” he explained. “This community is better off because of Valerie Larabee.”