Leno: EQCA 'unstable'
by Seth Hemmelgarn
State Senator Mark Leno is expressing serious doubts about the future of Equality California, the largest – and only – statewide LGBT lobbying organization.
"They're without a leader, and they're staffing and funding at this point appear uncertain and unstable," the openly gay Leno (D-San Francisco) said in an interview Tuesday, October 18. "That would give anyone reason for concern."
Leno's remarks came just a week after EQCA announced the resignation of Executive Director Roland Palencia, who had been on the job for just over three months.
EQCA has also missed two self-imposed deadlines to release a transition plan in the wake of Palencia's resignation. Spokeswoman Rebekah Orr wouldn't say when the organization would reveal its plans. Palencia is just one key staffer departing the organization, and Orr said she didn't know who the interim director would be.
Asked if he's confident about EQCA's future, Leno said, "I'm hopeful they can survive."
His comments are surprising. For years, Leno has worked closely with the nonprofit on legislation, most recently Senate Bill 48, the Fair, Accurate, Inclusive, and Respectful Education Act. Leno authored the bill, which requires teaching LGBTs' historical contributions, and Governor Jerry Brown signed it into law in July.
Palencia, 54, said last week that his decision to quit was "personal." He hasn't elaborated, but he did say that nobody on the board had asked him to leave.
He was hired in May to replace Geoff Kors, EQCA's longtime executive director who resigned in late March. Palencia started the job in early July. His salary was $170,000.
Orr said last week EQCA won't be shutting down. In an interview Tuesday, she indicated the organization would be shrinking, though. She said the organization's "changing ... both in terms of the work that needs to be done and the resources there are to do it."
As for Leno's remarks about EQCA's instability, Orr said, "I'm not really sure what he means by that, to be honest."
However, her subsequent comments help illustrate what he said. Orr said that "very often" people offer help when there's a campaign, but she indicated there's a decline in support between major efforts such as the fight over Prop 8. Kors was one of the key figures in the campaign, in which he and others raised more than $40 million in an unsuccessful fight against the state's same-sex marriage ban. Voters passed Prop 8 in November 2008.
EQCA and other organizations have struggled to raise money for other projects.
It's important that funding "isn't just dropped in when there's a campaign taking place and pulled out when it's over," Orr said.
In an interview around the time he announced his resignation in December, Kors said that contributions were down, in part because an anonymous donor contributed $500,000 in 2009 but was absent last year.
EQCA's total budget, including the Equality California Institute and other organizations, is roughly $6 million to $6.5 million
In December, Kors said that EQCA had more than $1.5 million in net assets. That number didn't appear to include money from the institute, EQCA's education branch.
Orr said Tuesday that the assets figure is now $740,000. She didn't say whether that number – which takes into account cash, property, and other data – includes the institute.
She didn't know how much debt EQCA has.
Recently, Orr that EQCA and its institute have about $250,000 in the bank altogether, and another $100,000 in grants would be coming in around this week. Tuesday, however, she didn't know whether that money had arrived.
"Over the last couple weeks, that has not been my primary focus," she said.
Palencia s departure is just one major staff change EQCA's facing. Finance director Steve Mele, government affairs director Mario Guerrero, and marriage and coalitions director Andrea Shorter are also leaving. Mele has taken a position with a congressional campaign in Nevada, while Guerrero and Shorter are being let go as part of a restructuring plan.
The retooling is supposed to include bringing on a deputy and political director. In an interview Monday, October 17, Orr said she didn't know if plans for filling that position were on hold. However, she said, "No one's been interviewed" for the job, and "there are no interviews taking place at this time."
Pushing LGBT-related legislation has been one of EQCA's core functions. Just before Palencia resigned, the group had boasted of Brown signing into law 10 of the 12 bills it had sponsored this session.
Some had also hoped that the organization would push for repeal of Prop 8 in 2012.
But Monday, October 3, EQCA's board voted against the idea. Palencia and others have refused to say how the board's vote broke down.
Rather than launch a repeal effort, EQCA announced it was embarking on the public education program, the Breakthrough Conversation. That effort likely will replace Let California Ring, an outreach campaign focused on marriage equality that started in early 2008 and re-launched in 2009.
The decision not to attempt to repeal Prop 8 has raised questions about what the organization is doing with the money left over from that campaign. EQCA and others raised more than $40 million. Much of that money was spent.
Data on the secretary of state's website shows that the Equality California Issues Political Action Committee included almost $470,000 in cash as of June 30, 2011. Among the historical names listed for the committee are Win Marriage Back, A Project of Equality California; and No on 8 – Equality California.
Orr, who, like Palencia, joined EQCA this summer, wasn't certain about the PAC funds, and there didn't appear to be anyone at the organization to help her answer questions for this story.
However, she said about $200,000 listed for the committee is from the No on Prop 8 campaign.
The other money "has been or will be used for public education" on issues including marriage equality, she said.
"Money that's been raised to support marriage work is going to go to support marriage work," Orr said.
Clarissa Filgioun, EQCA's board president, and Cathy Schwamberger, head of the institute board, didn't respond to interview requests for this story.
EQCA board Treasurer Jeannette Yazedjian, and members Cary Davidson and Rabbi Steven Jacobs; as well as institute board member Leslie Katz, also didn't respond to requests for comment.