Hillcrest Business Improvement Association under fire for ‘sham’ hiring processAround the City, Online Only, Top Highlights Monday, October 27th, 2014
International photographer and San Diego community activist, David Lundin has a problem with the Hillcrest Business Improvement Association. Actually, Lundin has several problems with HBIA, not least among them what he calls “the sham hiring process” that last summer led to the re-hiring of Benjamin Nicholls as the organization’s executive director.
Lundin has asked the California’s Attorney General’s Office to look into affairs at HBIA.
“Just compare Ben Nicholls’ resume to the job description (the HBIA) put out,” Lundin said during a recent interview with San Diego LGBT Weekly. “They’re practically identical. The ad (the HBIA) put out there was all but lifted directly from Ben’s resume. He was the predetermined candidate to fill the job. They just went through the motions.”
Lundin says there is evidence to support his accusation that HBIA’s search for a new executive director was nothing more than a sham.
“For one thing,” Lundin continued. “Who did (the HBIA) interview? As far as I can tell, no one got an interview–except for maybe Ben Nicholls. But I’m not sure they even interviewed him.”
LGBT Weekly has four responses to Lundin created questionnaires that were completed by alleged applicants for the top staff job at HBIA, which has an annual budget of more than $1 million.
All of the replies said the applicant never received any phone calls, emails or other forms of contact from the HBIA even acknowledging receipt of their resumes–much less an interview.
“[I was] never contacted, never got a response acknowledging receipt of my submission, never heard back from anyone,” wrote Clariza Marin, who found Lundin’s questionnaire via an ad on Craigslist with the heading, “Hillcrest Business Improvement Association Hiring Process Irregularities.”
Marin’s answer called the experience of applying for the executive director position at HBIA “unprofessional” and a “huge waste” of her time.
“I am a prior business owner, LGBT activist, senior financial executive with over nine years of controller experience, and an extensive amount of education in economic development from The New School for Social Research and the Milano School of Urban Policy,” she continued in her response. “The fact that I doubt my resume was even reviewed was enough for me to not want to have anything to do with the community, to be perfectly frank.”
It was not immediately clear if Marin was referring to the community of Hillcrest Business Association members, San Diego’s Hillcrest neighborhood or the local LGBT community in general.
Marin’s comments reflect the tone and substance of the other three alleged applicants’ responses who desired the job of running the HBIA’s daily affairs. (The questionnaires can be seen at LGBTweekly.com along with other documents David Lundin believes support his claims). Lundin says there are 11 other qualified applicants who were not contacted by HBIA.
HBIA officials are standing firm by their decision to give the executive director job back to Benjamin Nicholls. They are also quick to defend the selection process.
“Ben is the only candidate we gave an in-person interview,” said Glenn Younger, HBIA board member and chair of the search committee that led the effort to replace former executive director, Sonya Stauffer.
Stauffer had been hired to replace Benjamin Nicholls when he departed the HBIA last year to take a job at McFarlane Promotions, an event organizer that produces events for HBIA.
Younger says the fact that Nicholls was the only candidate to be interviewed to replace Stauffer is far from an indication of favoritism, cronyism or any other kind of nefariousness, as alleged by David Lundin.
In fact, says Younger, multiple candidates were interviewed by phone. Further, Younger says a narrowed set of candidates got two phone interviews.
“It came down to two truly qualified candidates,” said Younger, who owns Grah Lock and Safe, which is currently celebrating 100 years in Hillcrest. “One was an executive director at a business improvement association in San Francisco – the Castro BID, I think. The other was Ben Nicholls.”
There were “challenges” that were ultimately seen as disqualifiers of the San Francisco candidate, according to Younger. In addition to the costs that would have been involved in flying that candidate from the Bay Area to San Diego for interviews, and then paying for moving expenses if the candidate was hired, there was the issue of local roots – or, more accurately, the lack thereof.
“I know from my own experience in corporate America and even in my current business, that’s a real issue,” Younger explained. “It’s a risk factor. You don’t know if the person will end up staying if they don’t have any connection to the community.”
Ultimately, that was the deciding factor, said Younger, that led his three-person search committee comprised of fellow board members to re-hire Benjamin Nicholls as HBIA’s executive director.
“We could have handled the expense of relocating the San Francisco candidate,” he said. “But, why do that and take the risk of someone not adapting to a new city when we had Ben, who we know has the connection and the commitment to Hillcrest already? It’s kind of a no-brainer.”
Younger is firm in his opinion that HBIA got the best person for the job.
“That’s why we recruited Ben from PB,” he told San Diego LGBT Weekly. “We actually stole him from Pacific Beach because he was so successful in developing the [business improvement district] there.”
David Lundin is widely credited for exposing the inefficacy, alleged waste and mismanagement at the now defunct Balboa Park Celebration Inc. He now alleges that Younger, the HBIA search committee, and HBIA’s board of directors acted in bad faith, with impropriety and without performing adequate due diligence throughout the short search period.
Benjamin Nicholls says he doesn’t understand why anyone would be surprised that his resume would match the job he held for five years.
“It’s kind of like, ‘yes, and that’s strange because? …’” Nicholls asked rhetorically in an interview with LGBT Weekly. “I think sometimes people are just doing what they’re supposed to be doing in their job.”
Nicholls points to the fact that during his first tenure as HBIA’s executive director, the organization’s annuals revenues almost tripled. He says he also grew the revenues and number of annual events HBIA hosts each year to include a formerly deficit-running CityFest that now earns $40,000 for the neighborhood, as well as the Great High Heel Race and TasteNtini. Nicholls also points to Hillcrest’s almost universally beloved giant Pride flag, which has become the official meeting point for a myriad of LGBT rights and cultural activities as evidence that he is the right person for the job.
“We knew what we were getting with Ben and that he is great at doing his job,” said Younger. “We didn’t need to take a chance because he’s proven what he can do.”
Younger confirmed one of Lundin’s accusations, the charge that the HBIA search committee did not check with McFarlane Promotions to ask basic screening questions standard for most hirings in America.
“Wouldn’t you want to know why someone you are about to hire left their last job?” Lundin asks.
But, says Younger, Nicholls had been gone from HBIA for less than a year; he was a known quantity; and, with two major events happening within weeks, the organization needed to hire someone quickly.
“Ben had found out that leaving a job you love for more money is not always the right choice,” said Glen Younger. “The grass is not always greener somewhere else. Ben was available; we got lucky. That was the situation.”
Lack of due diligence in hiring Ben Nicholls is a better way to describe the situation, according to Lundin, who says it is unconscionable that HBIA first posted its opening for an executive director over the Fourth of July weekend. This only allowed for a four business-day application window because the board, and especially Board President Johnathan Hale, wanted to suppress the number of applicants.
“They could have extended Ben’s 60-day contract as interim director, gotten through CityFest and then hired someone after going through a normally paced search process,” said Lundin. “Instead, they tried to bury the job-opening and railroad the process to get Ben in before anyone else had a chance.”
The position pays an annual salary of just under $80,000. Nicholls was paid just under $5,000 to serve in a consulting and interim-executive role for 60 days, as allowed by HBIA’s bylaws and city regulations, before being rehired permanently.
“The 60 days was about to expire and the board couldn’t just renew the contract,” says Nicholls. “The best choice was to right the ship and move forward with our mission to serve the businesses of the Hillcrest community.”
Nicholls points out that HBIA’s help-wanted ad was ultimately run over a period of two weeks. An additional week was added to the short holiday week during which the ad originally ran. Furthermore, says Nicholls, HBIA posted the opening in no fewer than seven places contrary to Lundin’s accusation that it only ran on the organization’s Web site, its Facebook page and on Craigslist. The job listing was not placed in LGBT Weekly or on LGBTweekly.com.
Lundin claims the additional week was only added after he and others complained about the brevity of the first deadline. He points to internal emails among members of the search committee as evidence that there was a combativeness meant to ensure Ben Nicholls would be the only qualified candidate.
Wrote one board member: “… I always like to come from a position of strength and remain non-reactive to the naysayers. Nothing quiets unreasonable behavior of critics than steadfast resolve.”
Glenn Younger believes Lundin’s charges are political – that they have been intentionally fabricated to tarnish Johnathan Hale in hopes of harming Hale’s life partner, former City Councilman Carl DeMaio, who is running in a nationally significant election to replace Congressman Scott Peters. “I think this is very political,” Younger said. “Of course it is.”
Follow San Diego LGBT Weekly and LGBTweekly.com for more reporting about alleged financial improprieties at HBIA and more about David Lundin’s complaint to the state Attorney General about management of the organization.
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