The group behind the San Jose LGBT Pride celebration appears to be in serious trouble as the event approaches.
In the last week, two members of Gay Pride Celebration Committee of San Jose’s board have resigned, expressing grave concerns about the group’s leadership, especially board President Nathan Svoboda.
Several others have recently joined the board, but the departures come just over two months before the annual celebration in the South Bay city of almost 1 million people. The festival is planned for August 18-19.
The organization, which is less than half way to its fundraising goal, has also announced that there will be no parade again this year.
Just over one month ago, others – including recently-hired Festival Director Dane Dugan – also quit the organization. A longtime Pride supporter says that Svoboda should be the next to resign.
Svoboda, who didn’t respond to interview requests, said in a recent email to other organizers that last week’s resignations of board members Ray Mueller and Natalie Romano’s were “upsetting,” but he wished them well.
Mueller, 46, joined the board in February 2011 and was the group’s chief fundraiser. He quit Wednesday, May 30.
“I no longer felt that my experience was a value added to this organization,” Mueller said in an interview. Among his concerns were cutting the parade, which he said organizers had used to try to entice donors.
“It didn’t seem to phase anyone we’ve been selling a particular product,” and then changed it on short notice, Mueller said.
He said he was also “highly concerned” about the recent decision to bring back former Festival Director Gary Walker, who’d produced the event for years. Walker didn’t respond to an interview request.
Mueller said that bringing back Walker alone would cost Pride $30,000. That figure, much higher than the projected cost associated with ex-Festival Director Dugan, who quit in April, includes what Walker and his staff will be paid, and lodging expenses.
He said that Walker lives in Salt Lake City and “requires hotel rooms in the city for two weeks in order to come in and do the event.”
Mueller, who said he had been “the only person doing actual fundraising,” said that at the emergency meeting the board held Thursday, May 24, the budget they approved already included a shortfall of $8,000. Earlier this year, the Pride board had planned on a budget of almost $200,000.
In a news release today (Monday, June 4), Svoboda said the group’s fundraising goal is $66,300. So far, they’ve raised $28,400, he said.
In an email, Mueller said the board had raised $15,000 since December. He said that in the last few months he’d raised $20,000 in sponsorship pledges, but that was based on having a one-day festival and parade. He said $2,500 of that had come in.
Svoboda stated that the cost of the parade is estimated to be more than $15,000, and a $7,500 city grant can’t be approved until after July. There has not been a Pride parade in San Jose in over two years. The decision to cut the parade was made at the May 24 meeting, Mueller said.
An official with the San Jose Office of Cultural Affairs previously indicated cutting the parade could affect the city’s grant to Pride. No one from the city agency responded to a call from the Bay Area Reporter last week.
The Pride board had also decided at one point to make this year’s festival a one-day event, but that’s changed, too. Mueller said at the May 24 meeting, when the board voted to have a two-day event, Svoboda distributed printed materials that he’d ordered two weeks prior to the meeting that already listed the festival as two days.
Mueller voted to keep the parade. He struggled to remember how he voted on extending the festival but eventually said he voted no.
He said “a great number” of people had wanted the parade to return this year. “The party should be the incidental, not the parade,” Mueller said.
Mueller wouldn’t single out Svoboda for blame but faulted the organization’s leadership in general for the problems.
Natalie Romano, 24, also quit the Pride board last Wednesday.
In her resignation letter, which she provided to the B.A.R., Romano said, “Anyone who has been close to SJP in the last decade can see that it’s a money pit. … The important contemporary issues are transgender recognition, bullying, and marriage equality, none of which SJP plays an active role in. We take thousands of dollars from our community, constantly hit up the very people we are trying to help, and in return we give them a bunch of parties … . If we do anything positive for the community, we have overshadowed it by being such a burden on San Jose.”
In an interview, Romano, who’d also joined in February 2011, said she wouldn’t be surprised if Svoboda quit, but said, “I think it’s past the point where I would call for him to resign.”
“I think he needs to own what he’s created, because he’s had so much of a say in this,” she said. She said it was Svoboda’s idea to make the event two days again and bring back Walker, even though the organization can’t afford either.
Romano said she’s had problems with Svoboda ever since he became board president in July 2011. She said she sent Svoboda, whom she called “evasive,” an email “asking him to take some constructive criticism,” but he never responded.
Romano said “the last straw” for her was the vote on making Pride a two-day festival. She said the board had already voted twice to make it a one-day event, and each time Svoboda came back asking for it to be two days.
“He feels like he wants to be the San Jose Pride board himself,” Romano said. She added, “He’ll make all the decisions and then not talk to anyone about them. … We really only move forward on what Nathan wants to move forward on.”
Longtime Pride supporter: Svoboda ‘backboneless’
Luis Sarmento, who owns the San Jose gay bar Renegades and is a longtime supporter of Pride, said in response to emailed questions that Svoboda should resign.
Over the past 24 years, Sarmento’s had many roles with San Jose Pride, including board fundraising chair and entertainment chair.
He said Svoboda has an “unstable backboneless style of leadership, and “He will go down in San Jose Pride history as the worst person to have ever filled that position.”
At a Pride meeting held the day the B.A.R. ran a story on the organization’s leadership and financial troubles, Romano said that more people attended than usual. She described Svoboda as dismissive of people’s concerns.
Sarmento called the gathering an “Everything’s fine, move along, nothing to see here”-type meeting and said that Svoboda didn’t address concerns directly or acknowledge problems and responded to questions with “a repetitive ‘Uh huh, next person please’.”
Sarmento also called board Vice President Roman Fernando’s recent behavior “unprofessional.”
As last year’s entertainment partner, Sarmento secured acts including drag star Lady Bunny for Pride at a “big” discounted rate, he said. Pride couldn’t even afford a deposit on a main stage headliner, Sarmento said.
He said that this year, he tried to work with Fernando to again help Pride find entertainment, but the negotiations “were doomed right from the start.”
Fernando was “useless,” and Fernando’s friend AJ Solis, who recently joined Pride’s board, went on to “highjack the process” and was verbally abusive, Sarmento said. Fernando and Solis also lied about a contract and Svoboda didn’t show up to a meeting that had been planned, Sarmento said.
Solis and Fernando, who appears to be participating in this year’s AIDS LifeCycyle bike ride, which is currently underway, didn’t respond to interview requests through Facebook.
Sarmento said of the organization, “They need to admit there are problems, find real solutions, cleans itself of the cancerous lesions and stop blaming the community for its organizational blindness, ego’s etc. They also need to seriously ask themselves why attendance has been dropping every year, and why relationships with various sponsors, participants and donors have been damaged over the last few years … .”
Chances for survival
Asked about the chances of San Jose Pride not happening this year, Mueller, Romano, and Sarmento all pointed to the involvement of Walker, the festival director, as key.
Mueller said Walker “will have an event there, but “I don’t know what will happen as far as if the community will respond.”
Romano said she thinks Pride will still happen because Svoboda “will just throw nonexistent money” at it and Walker “knows how to make it happen.”
Sarmento appeared to agree.
“I’m confident something will happen because out of desperation they contracted back with Gary Walker … to make something happen,” he said.