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The Pride divide: an exclusive look inside the San Diego Pride committee meetings

Some heated discussions at the Pride Board meeting.
Photo credit:
Timothy Rawles - SDGLN

There seems to be a thorn in what is supposed be a smooth stem of communication between the San Diego Pride Board and a public committee put in place to exchange ideas.

San Diego Gay and Lesbian News got exclusive access to the mediations through a committee member and some of the topics conferred are both surprising and questionable.

Such as the discussions from the Board about the re-hiring of Executive Director Stephen Whitburn, their troubles with the Hillcrest Business Association, the dissatisfaction of Pride being billed as a music festival, its main revenue coming from alcohol sales, and not moving the Kick-Off party to downtown.

You may remember early last September San Diego Pride decided that they no longer wanted Stephen Whitburn as their Executive Director and surprisingly dismissed him even though Pride 2016 was the most successful LGBT event in San Diego’s history.

This created a firestorm of questions to the Pride Board from the public and committee members who stormed their offices demanding that he be reinstated.

The Board stayed quiet and wouldn’t budge on their position, prompting some members who disagreed with the decision to unify and give an ultimatum: either Whitburn gets re-hired, or some members of the Board must resign.

The outcry was loud and exact, a public meeting held on September 21, played to a packed house, resignation letters were drawn up and negotiations broke down amid the angry community and the people of the Board.

However, what resulted was a compromise. A team of five called the “community negotiating committee,” were selected to represent the public while another five, culled from the remaining seven members of the Board were selected to represent their side.

It seemed that some concessions would be inevitable as the two sides went behind closed doors to hammer out the specifics and resolve whatever issues were keeping them from seeing eye-to-eye.

However, that wasn’t the case according to one member who was there. He tells us the Pride Board wasn’t playing by the rules from the very start.

Pride’s Medical Director, Joseph Smith is one of the five selected to represent the community. He gave us an inside look at the atmosphere of the first convening, again it was less than peaceful.

He says that per the original agreement, the Board would only have their five representatives in attendance, but when he showed up they had broken that trust immediately.

“I think one of their emeriti was there as well as the lawyer for San Diego Pride,” he says. “And that really set the tone right away…we went into something with them already not holding up their end of the deal. And I was very saddened and disappointed and the meeting hadn’t even started yet.”

The five attending Board members were Bianca Burt, Matthew Verdeflor, Phyllis Jackson, Jim Seal and Lynn Barnes-Wallace.

Barnes-Wallace, Smith explains, invited the attorney to be present because of concerns over what could and couldn’t be discussed about Whitburn’s dismissal.

“Totally understandable,” said Smith. “I think the point of him being not being a part of this on the negotiation table was very frustrating. Because they were trying to make it seem like, ‘oh, the attorney’s here, this is already done, we can’t talk about it – he was just there to say we can’t talk about that -- you can’t say that. And about half-way through he left. And my feeling is, and again there’s no fact behind this, is that he quickly realized that this wasn’t anything, he had no reason to be there. And then he left. Why he left, I don’t know.”

He says it’s his understanding that Pride pays for legal counsel themselves.

The meeting continued with the committee trying to emphasize the importance of bringing Stephen Whitburn back as Executive Director, but according to Smith that was an uphill battle, the Board kept saying that was off the table. Barnes-Wallace even acknowledged that his dismissal was the impetus of the breakdown, “I thought we were getting somewhere at that point. But I have a list of things that she was saying that were very concerting to me,” said Smith.

The Board would simply not budge on this topic, and their recalcitrance about the subject was palpable.

Smith says that he actually doesn’t know a single person who doesn’t want Whitburn back as Executive Director.

“I just kept having to bring it back up,” he recalls. “‘Well, why?’ Just because the lawyer's here, and he can’t discuss why…of course he can’t – no one can discuss why anyone was terminated, that’s California law, but that doesn’t mean it’s off the table. And based on everything we’ve seen, we don’t find there to be just cause for him to be terminated.”

Barnes-Wallace, according to Smith, seemed to be the most hostile at the meeting, and not just toward the Whitburn discussions. He says she also didn’t like the idea that Pride was being billed as a music festival, even though the event was highly successful this year; some high-end ticket packages selling-out

He tells SDGLN that the Board even hired a music director.

“To hear the Board say they don’t want Pride to be a music festival deeply concerns me because if Pride is going to be successful if it is a music festival in terms of revenue and right now that’s just what’s hot. Right now everyone is going to music festivals and right now that is what is bringing in customers,” said Smith.

Alcohol sales also came up at the meeting. Smith says that Barnes-Wallace expressed displeasure that the majority of revenue from Pride is generated by the sale of spirits, although he can’t confirm how much, he believes the majority of money actually comes from ticket sales.

He also states that the Board was, “displeased early on about there being a disconnect between Pride and the ‘Friday Night Block Party.’”

The Block Party is presented by The Hillcrest Business Association (HBA) and usually kicks off the weekend festivities in Hillcrest even though they are not affiliated with Pride.

Smith says: “They used Pride’s logo and everything like that, of course. Pride is not affiliated directly with the Block Party. It is my understanding -- and this is hearsay -- that last year the HBA was not as forthcoming with the amount of money that they were going to donate. And then the amount of money they did say they were going to donate, they ended up not donating. They said that was used for the flag pole, something to do with the flag pole. Again, this is what I’m hearing, I can’t say this is what happened.”

The HBA Executive Director Benjamin Nicholls has denied these allegations and said in a statement to SDGLN, "The HBA isn't about making money.  We do make money, but our primary goal is the improvement of the Hillcrest business community. The continuation of our relationship with Pride serves that goal. Relative to our other events, like CityFest and the Taste of Hillcrest, Pride Block Party doesn't make a lot of money." 

Although HBA may or may not have not given money, Flux, a huge management group of clubs and different restaurants, stepped in and showed interest in giving money to Pride to the tune of $40,000; not from revenue, but outright.

This amount of money was a lot more than the HBA was offering said Smith. “And so, during this conversation we were having about this, one of our committee members; I think was somewhat ignorant to the fact about that, and about the Block Party not being a part of Pride. She said that she didn’t know why it was going to go downtown and she was against it going downtown, and something was said along the lines of ‘This was another reason.’ And so, it was said by one of the Board members that this is one of the reasons they were dissatisfied [with Whitburn].”

The downtown relocation project was eventually scrapped at the last minute according to Smith due to outcry from the HBA and local bars, “One thing I had to remind our fellow committee member is that this is not Hillcrest Pride, this is San Diego Pride,” said Smith. “One thing I thought was interesting that now was clear to me, that the Board was not happy with the idea of potentially the kick-off party moving downtown, they were happy with the HBA having that Friday night Block Party [in Hillcrest].”

He says he was confused by this logic because the Board had just mentioned that they were not happy with alcohol sales piloting the money earned, “I said, ‘Well, you’re going to support the HBA, whose main source of income is strictly alcohol, who price gouge every Pride. How much does it cost to get into Rich’s on Pride weekend? It’s ridiculous.”

He adds: “And then they only give us a small portion of what they get at the Block Party. And then they use our logo.”

So with dissatisfaction coming from the sales of alcohol and promoting Pride as a music festival, what exactly does the Board want Pride to become?

“And that’s what I asked. I said: ‘It’s been said to me that Stephen Whitburn was fired because he lacked vision, yet every year Stephen has been in, Pride has grown. And you are telling me that you don’t want Pride to be a music festival, what is your vision of what Pride should be?’ And yet again, I was not given an answer.”

Smith points out that the Board seems hypocritical with their judgement because they appear to lack vision themselves.

“And I’m concerned by that because, what direction does this Board want to take Pride if it’s not towards an already proven successful event?” Smith explains. “There’s already proven, tangible, successful, empirical…I mean, it’s already proven that this works, and that it’s grown every year. If this isn’t the direction you want it to go, then what direction do you want it to go? And if you’re gonna let someone go because of their lack of vision, then I think you need to be able to provide a vision. And I’ve said…I’ve told Pride, time and time again, ‘What is your vision?’ They have been unable to give us that.”

Smith thinks that the lack of direction may come from Barnes-Wallace’s lack of experience. “I think she compared -- she made some awful comparisons to you know, tear gas being thrown and her somehow fighting for Pride and whatnot.”

The committee is pushing for one corrective action that would require the Board to bring on six more Board members. They are encouraging three especially: William Rodriguez Kennedy, Ebony Burnett-Mullins, and Tiffany Gonzales.

Barnes-Wallace said, according to Smith, they would only accept one.

“And Lynn said – and I couldn’t believe she said this, ‘Oh, you want to appoint these members so they can come in and vote and undo everything we’ve done.’ She’s so paranoid. She then said that she wanted to run as co-chair. She doesn’t know her own bylaws. The bylaws say there has to be one male co-chair and one female co-chair. So she can’t.”

Bianca Burt is already the co-chair of Pride and despite asking for her resignation initially, the committee has since changed their minds and would like her to remain. They are instead now asking that Lynn Barnes-Wallace and Jaimie Carrillo step down.

“It was very apparent Bianca wanted to work with us, and she was very respectful and she listened to what we had to say,” Smith said. “And from the moment we got there Lynn was just the opposite. She was confrontational from the very beginning. She started off saying this is our attorney, which was already a violation of our agreement. And she really doesn’t have any experience within Pride. She’s lived the life, and she has experience in the life that she’s lived, but that doesn’t make her necessarily experienced to be on the Pride Board.”

As the co-chair, one would think that Burt would try to control the tone of the meeting and the actions of her Board members, but Smith says the attitude of the Board seems to be fueled by control.

“I really feel like there’s a culture within the Pride Board of just power. And their craving for power, and they’ve displayed that time-and-time again. I’m judging the Board based on their actions.”

The Board and committee will meet again on October, 19. Smith hopes that everything that was discussed has been considered and some resolutions will be made.

“It was told to me by a member of the Board that volunteers are, and I quote, ‘replaceable.’ If it wasn’t for those volunteers the whole event would never happen," Smith said. "I wanted to remind the Board that the Board is also voluntary and they are also replaceable.”

“I am very disappointed and very saddened by the current Pride Board leadership." He adds. 

Community negotiating committee member William Rodriguez-Kennedy states that some good did come out of the meeting, "While there is some understandable confusion and and frustration from the community committee and we have differing perspectives on a lot of the board's actions we did come out of that meeting with a unanimous consensus around the public letter we wrote and we would direct the public to that."

This article has been updated to reflect the HBA's response to the hearsay allegations as well as a statement by William Rodriguez-Kennedy. The Pride Board has yet to respond to a statement request.

See Also: Stephen Whitburn of San Diego Pride dismissed

See Also: San Diego Pride Board responds to Whitburn dismissal hours before protesters will ask all of them to resign