I am a resident of West Hollywood for more than 38 years, a senior citizen about to turn 73, and someone who frequented the Stonewall bar and participated in the first Pride March in 1970 in New York City. While director of volunteers at AIDS Project Los Angeles (1983-1989), I was responsible for APLA’s participation in Christopher Street West’s (CSW) festival and parade for five years. Because of the serious problems connected with CSW last year, I wanted to make a positive difference with the direction of this organization.
To do that, I submitted my application last September to be a CSW board member. I was elected to the board and attended my first meeting in that capacity in October. I resigned on January 17.
One major reason I parted ways with CSW was the requirement that board members sign a non disclosure agreement (NDA). The NDA was not mentioned to me when I submitted my application, when I was elected to the board or prior to my attending the October and November board meetings. It was not until the December meeting that the NDA fell from the sky. Interestingly, this was not a requirement of employees of APLA in the 1980s, when confidential information could destroy lives. And APLA volunteers signed a simple agreement that was not violated during my tenure there.
This current NDA, which in good conscience I could not sign, would be better suited for someone joining the CIA rather than CSW. To me, it builds a wall between the board and everyone else. There is no transparency and it stays in force, and I quote “…for all time.”
If a board member thought the board was not operating in the best interests of the community, or worse, lying to the community or even the West Hollywood City Council, the board member was bound by the NDA to say nothing. If the board member revealed anything CSW deemed confidential, that member could be subject to litigation and possible financial punishment. The four board members who resigned within mere hours, on the same day in December, cited the revised NDA they were required to sign as a reason for their action. While they are still silenced by signing the original NDA, I am not.
I had hoped that I could remain quiet until after June, but on Tuesday the City Council will discuss CSW’s plans for the 2017 L.A. Pride Parade and Festival (Item 4B). That item includes the city’s commitment to allow CSW to use city property and facilities through 2019. So my hand is forced, and I must voice my opposition because of what I know about the current board leadership and the board. I hope the following makes my concerns clear:
1) In December, I was informed that CSW did not have the money to pay the $1,500 a month rent for its office at the Pacific Design Center. Chris Classen, CSW’s president, said he would personally pay the January rent, if necessary. He also told me, as of the early part of last month, that there were only hundreds of dollars in the organization’s account. What CSW was expecting was a $200,000 advance from a beverage vendor to pay bills to tide them over. Yet, despite a dire financial situation, CSW is, as far as I know, going forward to hire an executive director at a salary of about $120,000 per year (benefits being an additional expense).
2) While on the board I suggested that CSW have at least one open forum to elicit community input and participation as well as give Mr. Classen and other board members an opportunity to answer questions. Mr. Classen’s written response: “We have…had 2 community meetings so I don’t see the value in hosting any more. We will be launching a community committee that people can join is (sic) they are inclined to be productive instead of public-comment activists…” I reminded Mr. Classen that the two community meetings were initiated by the City of West Hollywood not CSW. He remained opposed.
3) The CSW bylaws, although supposedly revised in October of 2015, were in serious need of attention. (A minor example: the bylaws mentioned using telegrams to communicate.) I volunteered for the very time consuming task of revising the bylaws. At one point, Mr. Classen asked about another matter, and I told him I was busy with the revisions.
His written response: “Keep in mind that while they are in need of updates, they don’t effect us on a daily basis.” And “…I’d suggest you spend 1 day on the bylaws and move on.” Mr. Classen’s comments reveal a serious lack of understanding regarding the absolute importance of bylaws. As president, one would think he should comprehend the matter.
Further, on Dec. 13, Mr. Classen left me a voice mail asking if the CSW bylaws contained any clauses about public transparency and/or if CSW board meetings were required to be open to the public. The inference to me was to not be transparent and have the public barred from board meetings.
4) CSW engaged in cloak and dagger behavior regarding information from a survey of participants in the 2016 Pride Festival. It could not be electronically transmitted but could only be viewed at the office and was not to be copied (although this was a violation of the bylaws). And board members were required to initial the monthly financial reports prior to the conclusion of the monthly meeting and return them to the treasurer with no copying permitted.
5) Mr. Classen was cavalier in dismissing requests to post CSW’s 2015 federal tax returns on its web site, LAPride.org. (By law, such returns are available to the public). He was perfectly content with leaving it to Guidestar, the website where many non-profit tax returns are posted (and sometimes a fee is charged to download them), to solicit the tax return from the IRS and post it where people could find it. As of this writing (Feb. 17), there is absolutely NO CSW IRS 990 tax return on the L.A. Pride web site, and the most recent 990 on Guidestar is from 2014. Guidestar also lacks important information about CSW that is provided by many other non-profits. This is transparency?
6) When five individuals (myself, three other board members and a volunteer) created drafts of a CSW mission statement (also shrouded in secrecy), the words “Christopher Street West” in the others’ drafts were stripped and replaced with “LA Pride.” That changed when I pointed out to the other participants that the organization is legally incorporated in the State of California as Christopher Street West. To me, this omission reflected the mindset of ignoring our roots.
7) When the city’s Public Facilities Commission issued its Pride ad hoc committee report on Oct. 22, I brought it to the attention of Mr. Classen. I also alerted him to the Nov. 7, City Council agenda item (5B — related to the ad hoc report). He didn’t understand, as he put it: “…the rub.” After I explained why the commission was requesting approval from the City Council to address events in public parks, he sent me this text: “I smell a rat. Something is off about this request. Curious to see how this plays out.”
8) When it became apparent to me that Mr. Classen was unaware of many things going on in West Hollywood, I found out that he actually lived in North Hollywood. Given that he was not a WeHo resident, I strongly recommended that he go to the City of West Hollywood’s web site and sign up for automatic email alerts. Two months later, I asked what he thought about them. Much to my dismay, he had yet to sign up.
9) Despite board member Craig Bowers’s very recent assertion that CSW will not encroach upon Melrose Avenue and San Vicente Boulevard for this June’s Pride (solely the intersection, he told WEHOville), the possibility of spilling out onto Melrose and south on San Vicente actually was discussed (including by me) to try and meet the challenge of a smaller West Hollywood Park footprint in June. As I recall, Melrose was mentioned more often than San Vicente. Perhaps the Melrose/San Vicente scenario was a trial balloon which drew the ire of the West Hollywood West Residents Association.
Overall, as a board member what stood out very prominently to me was that CSW seemed as if it were 46 days old, not 46 years old. It was like we were starting at square one. The reason given by Messrs. Classen and Bowers was that previous presidents and co-presidents did not provide a transition period when lessons learned would be shared with new leadership. That’s possible but baffling.
Some people think that CSW is an “arm” of the City of West Hollywood. It is not. It is a separate 501(c)3 non-profit. However CSW could not execute the annual Pride Festival and Parade without the largesse of the City of West Hollywood.
Given the current leadership and composition of the CSW board, I think it is time for CSW to fold its tent and hand over the keys to the city. To me, it may be the only way to ensure that the annual festival and parade continue to be a part of West Hollywood.