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Pride Society ‘in crisis’: former director

Only sparse board remains after AGM

Ken Coolen (left) narrowly won a second term as Vancouver Pride Society president on Jan 21, beating closest contender Chrissy Taylor (centre) by two votes in a recounted runoff, after Ray Lam (right) lost in the first round. Credit: Shauna Lewis photo

The Vancouver Pride Society (VPS) now has a sparse board of directors after a slim majority of members reelected Ken Coolen to serve a second term as president. Coolen’s reelection prompted several directors to step away from the board at the organization’s annual general meeting on Jan 21.

“A number of people have been questioning the leadership,” says outgoing treasurer Bernard LeClair. “I have been questioning the leadership.”

“If it wasn’t for Ken [Coolen], there would be a full executive and full board, but no one wants to run because no one wants to sit under him,” says former sponsorship coordinator Caryl Dolinko, whose contract the VPS terminated prematurely last July.

“There was a mass withdrawal of directors from the board due to Ken Coolen’s leadership and behaviour,” says VPS member and former director Chris Ellis, who could not attend the meeting.

“The VPS is in crisis — needlessly so,” Ellis says.

Ellis says he urged Coolen not to run again. He believes someone else should be VPS president.

Coolen narrowly beat VPS member and past volunteer Chrissy Taylor by just two votes, 21 to 19, prompting a recount.

Some members questioned the recount’s accuracy since at least 10 minutes elapsed between the first and second count, during which time four voting members may have left the room. But VPS general manager Scott Blythe assured members the vote was legitimate.

Of the four directors remaining with Coolen on a possible 12-person board, former vice-president Shawn Ewing says she is planning to resign at the next board meeting on Jan 24.

If no new director is appointed to fill her seat, the board won’t be able to function since the society’s bylaws require a minimum of five directors for quorum.

“This isn’t a personal thing. I love Ken, the person, dearly. He has done some wonderful things for the organization and the community,” Ewing says. “This is about the leadership of an organization I care very deeply about. He is not the right person to lead.”

Ewing says she, too, shared her concerns with Coolen prior to the meeting. She says the meeting’s outcome is “a clear message from the people Ken has worked with for the past three years that they will not work with him as president for a multitude of reasons, but mostly he is not a leader and does not have their respect.”

“He knew beforehand if he stood again, that those people would not run or participate, and the board would be crippled as it is,” Ewing alleges. “He knew that people that were keenly interested in standing for director at large would not stand if he was elected.”

“He is completely aware the board will be receiving my resignation at tomorrow night’s meeting,” she continues. “He doesn’t care about the board support, and it appears he doesn’t really care what effect his actions have for VPS.”

“I’m the first to admit that I haven’t been perfect, but I’ve always been open to the feedback of the community,” Coolen says. “I think I am a good leader, and obviously the community thinks I am a good leader or else I wouldn’t have been elected.”

“If I thought I was a poor leader then obviously I wouldn’t have run,” he continues.

“The reason why I ran,” he says, “is because I love what Pride stands for. I love that it’s about giving people the opportunity to express their individuality and celebrate who they are.”

A proposed bylaw amendment to prevent VPS presidents serving two consecutive terms was defeated by the membership at the meeting. Ellis moved the proposal, which was seconded by former VPS president John Boychuk.

Ellis also proposed an amendment to allow only individual VPS members to nominate directors — stripping community organizations, which are also VPS members, of their right to nominate.

Ellis told Xtra he introduced the motion in part to block Jennifer Breakspear’s nomination of Coolen for president. Breakspear is the executive director of Qmunity, BC’s queer resource centre and a VPS member.

“This bylaw serves to set up a two-tiered system of membership of the VPS,” Breakspear told the meeting. “Frankly, right off the bat, that scares the shit out of me.”

Drag queen Joan-E agreed. “I’m very concerned about this proposed amendment,” she said. “My fear is that it is really going to alienate people along the way.”

Had the proposal passed, it would have left community organizations like the Dogwood Monarchist Society, of which Joan-E is a member, without a seat at the table, she said. “And these are people who have raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for this community — including to the Pride Society.”

The amendment failed.

Some members suggested that Dean Nelson, who holds an organizational vote for WinterPride, which Coolen co-owns, should have excused himself from the vote due to conflict of interest. Nelson held three ballots in the vote.

But Coolen said Nelson’s votes were legitimate, according to the VPS bylaws, as he held an independent vote and two organizational votes — one for WinterPride and the other for the Mr Gay World organization, both of which are members of the VPS.

There was no conflict of interest, Coolen says.

While some members challenged Coolen’s leadership, others backed it.

“I think Ken has been a really good leader, and I look forward to working with him in the future,” Breakspear told Xtra after the meeting.

“I’m very happy to be on the board. I’m very proud to represent the community and, more importantly, get to serve the community as I have in the last two years,” says Raigen D’Angelo, who was reelected to the board for a second term.

The VPS’s latest financial statement shows it ended the year with approximately $22,000 surplus, almost $11,000 less than the previous year’s surplus.

Blythe says the organization’s expenses were higher last year due in part to security costs more than doubling following the Stanley Cup riot.

Though the city’s bill for enhanced policing post-riot was higher than anticipated, Blythe says the VPS’s decision to replace its own volunteer security with paid professionals had already been made and budgeted for. It’s part of a push to make the VPS more professional, he says.

“We came in pretty close to our budget, actually,” Blythe notes.