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Pride Toronto board faces tough questions on deficit

'This is a gong show': Jane Farrow

Credit: Andrea Houston

A storm of anger met the Pride Toronto (PT) board of directors Jan 27 as members continued to demand answers on the “shocking financial mismanagement” that has forced one of the city’s flagship festivals almost to bankruptcy.

Question after question was fired at the board at the organization’s general meeting, and it quickly became clear how little the board knew about what was happening to the organization’s own balance sheet.

“Pride Toronto is a fractured organization that has completely lost its connection to the community,” Elle Flanders told Xtra. “A fundamental change needs to happen. There needs to be accountability, fiscal management. They have fiscally mismanaged this festival for the past couple years.”

About 150 people, mostly PT members, met at the Church Street Public School. The meeting came on the heels of the release of PT’s audited financial documents to Xtra on Jan 25 and the Jan 26 announcement that executive director Tracey Sandilands had resigned.

The caustic tone in the room bubbled over after treasurer Daniel Knox attempted to explain the ballooning expenses and financial irregularities. Meanwhile, PT’s media coordinators watched from the “media-free zone.”

“This is a very serious situation,” said one member. “These financial statements call the whole system into question. Who was watching over people’s shoulders? There seems to be a settlement for [Sandilands]? There seems to be a smelly paper trail that leads right here.”

The financial documents reveal that PT is in dire financial trouble. It finished the year with a loss of $431,808, including the exhaustion of the organization’s contingency fund. That leaves the organization $109,401 in the red. PT has explained that it “over-budgeted” on sponsors, drink sales were dramatically down and spending was way up. The organization’s $90,000 line of credit has kept it afloat.

Many of the irregularities trace back to Sandilands, board co-chair Francisco Alvarez said.

“Perhaps there was a little too much trust in our executive director in terms of the information that was coming forward to the board in our reports,” he admitted to Xtra.

Sandilands’ partner’s “company,” MediaWorld, was paid about $40,317 for web updates and newsletter services “through various periods” between April 2009 and November 2010. The board admitted there was no contract for the work.

“Neither Margaret [Ngai] nor I would ever have approved that situation if we knew it had happened,” Alvarez told Xtra.

PT also points to Sandilands for dramatically increased and unexplained costs in other areas as well, including salaries and benefits; office administration; community outreach, fundraising and bursaries; volunteers; and occupancy.

The board had no answers to basic questions. “PT is more than $100,000 in debt. How did this happen?” “How did you not know Tracey’s partner was being paid?” “If Sandilands resigned, why did she get a severance package?” “Those are some of the most expensive web updates I’ve ever seen. Why was she paid so much?”

Faced with a barrage of questions, board members stumbled, searching for answers. They admitted the budgeting was “risky.” Knox conceded that there are “discrepancies.”

Neither Knox nor the co-chairs knew PT was paying Sandilands’ wife, Janine Marais, until late November. This revelation drew gasps from the crowd. “How could this be?” Knox explained he’s only been treasurer since September, when he replaced former treasurer Mark Singh.

Some called for an investigation by the board, others suggested the police should get involved. “The board should resign,” a member shouted.

Jane Farrow called the meeting a “gong show.”

“This is outrageous,” shouted a member. “[Sandilands] colluded with a previous board member. You’re not doing a damn thing to look into it. I want to know why not.”

All around the room people murmured in surprise and shook their heads. Alvarez said he hasn’t made any decisions on the scope of the investigation.

“Yes, there was a conflict of interest,” Alvarez said. “I don’t know what we can do.”

“Don’t give her a severance package,” Jane Walsh shouted. Alvarez refused to reveal the amount of Sandilands’ severance package, citing a confidentiality agreement.

At several points throughout the nearly four-hour meeting, the board told people to “wait for the Community Advisory Panel [CAP] to release its recommendations.”

“Our top priorities now will be financial prudence and the CAP report,” Alvarez told Xtra after the meeting. “And that’s all we’re going to do before the festival. I hope that people have faith and trust that we are trying to make positive change and be more accountable. Likewise, we’re not rushing into an executive director search for now.”

Accountability will also be a major focus, he vowed.

Members called for PT to sever ties with former treasurer Singh and his partner, Daniel Chimento of Drago Productions, who submitted a bid to host the Pride Gala following a request for proposals. Singh is currently president at Fierte Canada Pride, “a branch of WorldPride,” Alvarez said.

Metropolitan Community Church pastor Brent Hawkes has already warned that WorldPride could be at risk if PT doesn’t pull itself out of debt. WorldPride requires three consecutive financially stable years locally as a condition of being the host city, he has said. “We cannot afford another year of instability without running a real risk of losing WorldPride.”

Asked by Xtra how much culpability Singh should shoulder, Alvarez said, “That’s a difficult question to answer.”

“He was definitely the person who hired and recruited Tracey,” he said. “There definitely was another conflict of interest situation in the first year that involved him and his partner.

“I would say all the board members bear some culpability for the decisions that were made under their watch, including us. I will shoulder some of the responsibility of what’s happened since I’ve been there, and I hope the other directors feel the same way.”

When it came time to vote on a new board member and approve bylaw amendments, the frustration in the room reached a fevered pitch.

Three board candidates made their pitch on why they should be added to the board. Human resource professional Luka Amona won the vote. The other candidates were lawyer Marcia Cannon and activist Mark Smith, who couldn’t make the meeting.

The first of three amendments would give the board power to approve members. Dean explained that the first amendment would allow PT to “clear up who is a member and who isn’t.” Alvarez said the board has always had the power to approve members. This would just make it official.

Syrus Marcus Ware asked what benefit there is in limiting membership. “It sounds like this is more limiting. It seems strange that a board that is so overworked is trying to approve the nomination of every member.”

“You have a gargantuan task ahead of you,” Ware added. “The festival is right around the corner. [These bylaw amendments] should not be your number-one priority.”

“This entrenches the idea that the board should approve us to be a member of Pride. No one should have to be approved,” said Tonia Szablowski.

Just before the votes on the bylaw amendments were taken, Susan Gapka said, “For a moment there it felt like the board understood what we’re saying.”

The crowd suggested all motions be voted down. Alvarez agreed. Withdraw these amendments and wait for the CAP report, he suggested.

Many in the room were surprised when all four bylaw amendments were passed.