Atlanta Pride holds closed meeting, hires PR firm amid criticism

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The Atlanta Pride Committee held a members-only meeting watched over by an Atlanta police officer as the organization's executive director reacts to continuing complaints from volunteers and former staffers.

The non-profit has also hired a public relations firm to help manage the fallout from the leak of an internal report. An attorney hired by Atlanta Pride recommended in the report that the organization undergo an audit, overhaul a “clearly dysfunctional” board of directors and replace Executive DirectorJamie Fergerson.

The Pride Committee meeting, held Sunday at the Rush Center, was scheduled by board ChairTrisha Clymore, Fergerson said.

“It was always a membership meeting, it was never a public town hall,” Fergerson told Project Q Atlanta. “It felt important to have a meeting with our membership. It’s not about keeping anyone out. It’s just about making sure we’re doing due diligence in taking care of our members.”

Fergerson said she requested an Atlanta police officer attend the meeting.

“I have gotten messages and things that have happened to me since the original story broke that have made me feel unsafe and uncomfortable,” she said. “So we invited someone who’s friends with the organization who’s been there a long time.”

Fergersonfiled a police reportabout the leaked internal memo and organizational review on Oct. 23.

Sean Cox, Atlanta Pride's former board chair, resigned earlier this month and publicly warned that the non-profit is facing “significant financial issues, staff management issues, contract issues” and sponsor complaints. He also said Fergerson should be replaced, which he tried to make happen before he left the board.

In the wake of media coverage about the leaked memo and Cox's resignation, Atlanta Pride hired a public relations firm.

“They’re helping us figure out how to answer things so we can be as transparent as possible without crossing the lines of confidentiality,” Fergerson said. “We’ve heard from members of the committee that they’d like to hear more from us, so one step of that is hiring experts that can help us to do that.”

She would not reveal how much the firm is being paid.

Atlanta Pride is a non-profit organization that generated over $1.8 million in donations, grants and revenue in 2018, according to financial documents available on its website.

Two committee members resign

At least two Atlanta Pride committee members resigned ahead of the Pride festival over their issues with Fergerson. The festival took place Oct. 12-13.

Brittany Wesson resigned on Aug. 23 in an email sent to Fergerson and other committee members. The email was obtained by Project Q.

“Your lack of transparency and willful misrepresentation of people and interactions leave me with no choice but to resign,” Wesson wrote about Fergerson. “I do not feel that I can collaborate with a team or organization that is led through manipulation and dishonesty.”

Wesson added that the organization under its current leadership “lacks transparency and seems to operate in a manner that discourages collaboration, accountability and honesty.”

Brian Stokes joined Atlanta Pride in August 2018 and was assigned to the entertainment committee for the 2018 festival. But he was discouraged by a lack of organization and transparency.

“There was no written responsibilities and that was frustrating for me because from a business standpoint in a corporate environment, people have to know their responsibilities,” Stokes told Project Q. “You can’t just wing it. No other million-dollar organization can run like that.”

He moved to Chicago in April but wanted to volunteer at the 2019 festival and booked a flight to Atlanta to do so. Stokes said he tried confirming details with Fergerson and other Atlanta Pride employees throughout the summer, but was never given any answers.

“I understand that I’m not the only piece of Pride, however I’m willing to dedicate my time to volunteer, commit my time to fly down, purchase a flight, I’m willing to come down and commit to the organization, however you can’t even respond to me to give me some guidance on how I can help?” he said. “It was countless lack of organization and communication.”

He resigned in an email to the Atlanta Pride board and committee members on Aug. 25.

Fergerson didn’t address Wesson and Stokes’ claims directly.

“Unfortunately, there has been a small handful of people that left APC because we weren’t all moving the same way as each other, because they moved, or for other reasons,” she told Project Q.

Fergerson claimed that the criticism is the exception, not the rule.

“I would hate for the experiences of outliers to color the experiences of the approximately 400 festival volunteers and 50 year-round volunteers that we have,” she said. “They are wonderful and truly the backbone of the organization.”

But she said Atlanta Pride will work on improving its volunteer support.

“We will also be undertaking a volunteer survey as part of our community needs assessment later this year, and we hope that that will provide useful information about how we can continue to improve in this area,” she said.

Former employee speaks out

Atlanta Pride hired Vega Darling to manage the group’s programs and partnerships in June 2017. But his relationship with Fergerson quickly soured, he told Project Q.

Darling claimed that Fergerson refused to train him, was verbally abusive and was rarely in the office. He added that Fergerson refused to speak to him during the 2017 festival.

Darling injured his ankle during the event but did not receive medical care, he said. Fergerson fired Darling the Monday after the festival.

“The day I was fired, Jamie claimed she had no knowledge of my injury and that I should have filled out a report with her — while I was told I was not to contact her in any fashion until the festival was over,” he said. “I went to start a workers comp case and get care after the festival was over and Jamie wouldn't return their calls. I had to contact the company that does their payroll and HR paperwork to get things moving.”

Darling claimed that, after firing him, Fergerson told the Atlanta Pride board that he was “violent and dangerous.” Darling also alleged that Fergerson said the security system at the Rush Center — where Atlanta Pride and other LGBTQ non-profits have offices — needed to be upgraded after he was fired.

Darling said the board should have term limits for its members – a criticism echoed by others – and that Fergerson needs to be replaced.

“The board is willing to side with Jamie over everything else,” he said. “It’s not the entire board, just the ones that have been there the longest.”

Fergerson declined to comment on Darling’s claims.

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