Fireworks and calls for Hale’s resignation fly at HBA meetingOnline Only, Top Highlights, Around the City Thursday, June 19th, 2014
A mostly stoic, although occasionally taken aback, Hillcrest Business Association Board of Directors took volley after volley of criticism during the public comments portion of its monthly meeting Tuesday. Complaints ranged from concerns that the organization’s executive director was improperly fired, that it holds “too many” fundraisers and events while “not doing enough” for local businesses, to admonitions that it has been “recklessly exposed” to potentially bankrupting lawsuits by its president, Johnathan Hale.
Allegations were also made that, under Hale’s leadership, HBA has violated California’s Brown Act, which is intended to ensure access to, and notification about proceedings of organizations that receive taxpayer funding.
“This situation is just one of many symptoms of this malignancy that has affected this organization’s functionality under Mr. Hale’s tenure,” said local business owner, John Thurston to the board.
The public comment portion of the meeting included multiple calls for Hale’s resignation or removal from office, but ended with a singular – however full-throated – endorsement of Hale by City Commissioner Nicole Murray Ramirez.
“Upon assuming office as president last year, Mr. Hale willfully and intentionally moved all HBA committee meetings from the HBA offices to the Hale Media offices,” Thurston said. “Subsequently 25 illegal meetings were scheduled and/or conducted at Hale Media in violation of your own bylaws, the California Unruh Civil Rights Act, the California Disabled Persons Act, the Brown Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act.”
Hale Media publishes SDGLN.com and is owned by Johnathan Hale.
Local attorney and photographer, David Lundin, alleged at the meeting and in an email to the press that “Hale’s decision to hold meetings in his office for his own convenience has exposed HBA to large potential legal liabilities.”
Citing two California laws that “complement the federal ADA,” Lundin said an as-yet hypothetical plaintiff could recover statutory penalties unrelated to any actual damages of $5,000 for each violation (i.e., each meeting) held at a non ADA-compliant facility.
If Lundin’s and Thurston’s allegations are true and their tally of meetings held at such facilities are correct, HBA may indeed have been exposed to a minimum of $125,000 in potential penalties – not including attorney’s fees and punitive damages.
“Mr. Hale’s arbitrary actions could make the organization liable for upwards of $250,000 in penalties and attorney’s fees, essentially bankrupting the organization as it stands today,” Thurston told the board, noting also that HBA committee meetings were only moved back to the organization’s ADA-compliant offices after city officials instructed the board to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Thurston warned the board that the return of the meetings to HBA’s ADA-compliant offices does not eliminate the legal exposure because, he says, ADA claims have a three-year statute of limitations.
“For this abrogation of Mr. Hale’s fiduciary responsibilities as president of this board, and for this reason alone, I urge you to seek Mr. Hale’s removal from HBA’s board,” said Thurston. “These are serious violations of your bylaws as well as state and federal laws and an affront to the local disabled community…”
Not least among the others with complaints was Sonya Stauffer.
“I believe I am still the executive director,” Stauffer said, standing in the audience rather than at the seat next to President Johnathan Hale. Next to Hale was former executive director, Benjamin Nicholls, whom Hale identified as the new interim executive director.
“I was terminated unilaterally by Johnathan Hale on June 5 without board knowledge or a board vote. This is not within the bylaws of the organization.”
As of this writing, Stauffer is still listed as executive director on HBA’s Web site.
Stauffer described an HBA whose internal operations are “in disarray with staff at its capacity.” She also said that she received no training other than a two-hour talk over drinks with then-outgoing executive director, Ben Nicholls
For his part, Nicholls seemed to indicate that Stauffer, not Hale, was the cause of the dissatisfaction expressed en masse during Tuesday’s meeting. He told LGBT Weekly that he would get the organization back on track.
“It’s clear that we’ve lost our way in the past eight months,” Nicholls said, referring to the time Stauffer was in office. “We need to do a better job at communicating and being more transparent and accessible. That’s clear.”
Echoing John Thurston, self-described “retired attorney” and owner of Son Appareil Photography, David Lundin further warned the board of “a number of plaintiffs’ lawyers in this state who aggressively seek to sue businesses and associations who breech the ADA; and this is as clear a breech as can be. They would file a lawsuit; get summary judgment and win.”
But Lundin, who said he has lived in Hillcrest for five years, was more upset by what he sees as the willful exclusion of an entire class of people with limited physical abilities from HBA meetings.
“This is especially true in a community like Hillcrest, which isn’t just LGBT-friendly,” Lundin said. “It’s vision impaired-friendly; it’s orthopedically impaired-friendly; it’s mobility impaired-friendly. To send the signal that this group closes its doors and puts the deliberative body upstairs inaccessible to those people is … not just illegal but inconsistent with the letter and spirit of the federal, state and local laws controlling these issues. I urge Mr. Hale to resign voluntarily and if that doesn’t happen, this board should remove him.”
Matt Wahlstrom, a veteran critic of HBA, who has had several run-ins with the board regarding the exclusion of his employer, Roberts Electric and him from membership and the right to run for a seat on the board, submitted a stack of documents detailing his communications with regulatory and law enforcement agencies, including the California Attorney General’s Office, the U.S. Department of Justice, the District Attorney’s Office and officials at the City of San Diego charged with overseeing business improvement associations, including HBA.
The documents – mostly email communications – include claims of improprieties at HBA ranging from alleged bylaws infractions to alleged violations of federal, state and local laws. Wahlstrom expressed doubt that the full board had been kept abreast of his concerns.
“For the past ten months, I have been corresponding with the president and the executive director regarding concerns about the organization,” Wahlstrom said. “Yet it does not seem that this information has been shared with all of the other directors.”
Former HBA board member and local business owner, Michael Wright echoed some of the complaints made by others during the public comments period, as did others in attendance at the meeting.
The lone voice of support for Hale and the HBA board as it is currently composed came from Nicole Murray Ramirez.
“As a person who is older now myself, and someone who needs to take the elevator, I understand the complaints,” Ramirez said. “But look at this board. It’s the most diverse I’ve ever seen it. And we should support Johnathan Hale and kind of take a step back and look at all of the wonderful things the organization is doing to include a place for everyone at the table.”
But, according to San Diego Human Relations Commission member, Dion Brown, who also stood and spoke during the public comments period in protest of a recent poster distributed by HBA to advertise an upcoming event.
“Where am I as a person of color in this poster?” Brown asked rhetorically. The poster featured several shirtless, white young men. No persons of color appeared in the ad. “How am I supposed to know I’m welcome to go to this event?”
So far, the board has not indicated it will take any action against President Johnathan Hale, who declined comment for this article – referring LGBT Weekly instead to HBA’s interim director, Benjamin Nicholls.
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