The Dec. 23, 2004, issue of Salt Lake Metro featured a story about the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Community Center of Utah and its impending collapse. This highlight grabbed my attention right away: “Larabee stresses that the new leadership of the Center, along with honest communication with the community, are key parts of the Center’s long-term plan to reinvigorate itself.”
Now, nine years later, we find ourselves and our Center – the Utah Pride Center – in the same circumstance. This time the words aren’t coming from Valerie Larabee, the then newly appointed executive director and now the newly resigned one, but are now coming from John Netto, the new president of the board of directors.
Over the past several weeks a great deal of disturbing information has come to light regarding mismanagement and malfeasance at Utah Pride. The tipping point, as we all know, was the public outcry regarding two high-profile layoffs. Utah Pride’s response to this outcry was to hold “talking circles” with the community, ostensibly an opportunity for the members of the community to air their concerns and begin the process of healing a broken Center.
It all sounded good, but it is starting to seem more like lip service than real commitment to change.
During the talking-circle meetings Netto made several promises to the community. First, he promised a more open and transparent Center. He apologized for shutting out the public and press from the Oct. 28 board meeting and promised that such things would not happen again. He promised, on Oct. 30, that the Center would release its financial statements within 30 days. And he promised that the board would seek new members to grow and become truly representative of the community at large.
None of these promises have been kept.
Less than a week following those promises an “emergency meeting” of the board of directors was called to discuss a letter delivered by several former employees, board members and community activists. This meeting was called without the proper notice to directors (per Center bylaws) and with no notice to the public or press. QSalt Lake managed to attend after hearing a rumor about the meeting.
It has now been six weeks since financials were promised, yet none are available. Netto has stated that the executive committee of the board decided to delay the release of that information until the statements can be audited, which he anticipates will be sometime after the new year. He stated to me that “It is normal and customary to make public only audited statements.”
If that is true, why was a promise made to release those statements within 30 days?
At the Dec. 2 board meeting, an update on board recruitment was presented. One board member had offered a seat on the board to one person, who wasn’t sure if she had the time to dedicate herself to the position. One person. After over six weeks they’ve opened discussion with one prospective new board member. Contrary to what we’ve been told, as of my deadline there is no application for board membership on the Pride Center’s website.
It seems as though nothing was learned nine years ago. Then, as now, honest communication is a key element. It’s not happening. The newly elected vice president of the board reacted with defensiveness and condescension when questioned by community members at the Dec. 2 board meeting.
The financial issues of nine years ago were caused by an over-dependence upon a small number of large-dollar donors. According to the UPC’s audited financial statement of 2012, just two donors accounted for 38 percent of the Center’s public support.
The problems at the Center, however, are not rooted in money; the financial problems are a symptom of the real issue: mistrust. Nine years ago Larabee stressed the need for honest communication with the community, which has also been promised by this board, but has yet to be delivered. They’re making promises they can’t (or won’t) keep and they’re not being responsive to the community. They had the opportunity to show a commitment to change on Dec. 2, instead they chose to re-elect the existing board officers, adding two new ones to a vacancy and a newly created position. You can’t reverse a trend of declining trust by staying on the same course that got you into trouble in the first place.
The argument has been made that they have to work with what they’ve got, and while this is true, the problems “they’ve got” are of their own making. Netto isn’t new, nor are Match, Wharton and Frogley. All were elected to the board-officer positions uncontested. The real question we should be asking is this: Why is there nobody who is willing to step up and lead the Center? What does it say about an organization that none of its board are ready and/or willing to assume leadership and make change?