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Photograph by Sarah Phelan

SCAP Under Fire: Santa Cruz AIDS Project executive director Christopher Smith says his motives for making controversial changes at the nonprofit have been distorted. This wasnt an easy choice,' he says. 'But people act like we just sat in a back room and made some rash decision. We looked at this from every angle for six months.'

SCAP Scrape

The controversy around Santa Cruz AIDS Project has become the hottest story no one wants to talk about--but will anything come of all these accusations?

By Sarah Phelan

It wouldn't be the first time that people have raised an eyebrow at what's going on inside the Leonard Building, the cupola-topped structure at Cooper and Front Streets.

During Prohibition, the sculptured grapevine that creeps across the cupola was said to be part of a secret code that hinted at the speakeasy located in the building's basement.

More recently, the public focus has shifted to the legality of decisions made on the first floor of the 110-year-old building, which houses the Santa Cruz AIDS Project. Such questions started flying at the beginning of January, when SCAP's board decided to disband its prevention services and terminated its entire Education and Prevention team.

Getting laid off is never pleasant, but what irked the E&P team--which was comprised of Timothy Maroni, Dawn Beggs, David Gonzalez, Aaron Martin, James Russell and Martha Zavala--were the reasons given for their termination, the manner in which it was done, the way they were treated when they tried to get answers, and the fact that overnight their clients were left without services.

For many local residents, the first sign that all was not well with the much beloved nonprofit was the gaggle of sign-bearing protesters who staged a demonstration outside the Leonard Building directly beneath SCAP's boardroom--which is recognizable from the street, thanks to the huge red AIDS ribbon which decorates its window.

The protesters unleashed a torrent of charges, including claims that the board lied, that executive director Christopher Smith engaged in favoritism and that the funding cuts and budget deficits facing SCAP did not necessitate their termination. Citing meetings attended and bimonthly reports filed, they disputed Smith's claims, made in their termination letters, that he had been "unsuccessful in engaging this team in strategic planning, identifying measurable outcomes and receiving tangible reports to bolster our accountability."

At the time of this demonstration, Smith was out sick, but the next week he was back in the office, at which point he told Metro Santa Cruz that while the layoffs had been "difficult" and while he regretted the "human cost," he remained convinced that the decision was in "the best interest of the agency and community it serves."

Boiling Point

The situation between Smith and the terminated E&P team deteriorated during SCAP's Jan. 20 board meeting, in which Beggs, Gonzalez and Maroni and their supporters were shown the door after 15 minutes--and were reportedly threatened with police action if they didn't leave the building.

During that meeting, Smith reportedly talked of being a preventionist, who started out as an outreach worker, and who still remains very much committed to prevention.

"But the original landscape has changed," Smith said. "We do not live in a land of largesse anymore. We have an administration that's hostile to the work that we do. We have a state that has a budget deficit that is ballooning. If you look all around the country, if you look at all the AIDS organizations that have failed, those have been organizations that have been unwilling to adapt."

Citing the $217,609 that SCAP will lose on July 1, 2005, Smith said, "Those are facts. I wish I could change them, but I cannot. ... And so do we jeopardize the whole organization, or do we figure out this is how the world looks and this is how we adapt? This wasn't an easy choice. But people act like we just sat in a back room and made some rash decision. We looked at this from every angle for six months. We knew that failure was not an option. And that's the spirit that we move forward in."

Smith also said that despite the fractious tone of that board meeting, Maroni followed up with him afterward, leaving a voicemail message in which he said he bore Smith no ill will. Maroni confirms that he made that call.

"Yes, I did call Christopher. This isn't personal. It's about the agency, its heart, soul and tradition--and its clients," said Maroni, noting that in the 10 years he worked for SCAP, he raised $2 million for the nonprofit, founded the drop-in center, which was duplicated across the state, and pioneered the street outreach efforts.

Beggs, who worked for SCAP for five years, during which time she served hundreds of youths, injection drug users and sex workers, acknowledged that, while it's true that she can be replaced, her clients' trust has been broken.

"Prevention isn't just words on a page, it's heart, soul, love and trust. That's how the community sees the AIDS project, but right now that place is going down," said Beggs, who along with Maroni, her boyfriend, became homeless Feb. 5.

Meanwhile, Gonzalez, who for the past five years was an advocate for Spanish-speaking gay and bisexual men, fretted that there is no proof of a concrete plan of action in place.

Noting that SCAP's Watsonville branch moved out in August, but that the E&P team continued doing outreach, testing and needle exchange, Gonzalez fondly recalled Maroni's work on the streets of Watsonville.

"There he was, with his broken Spanish, convincing at-risk men to be tested, and advocating for them. We saw positive definite benefits and positive outcomes, which have now been eliminated," said Gonzalez, "so, why is this happening? If you hire someone for 10 months to fundraise and they only raise $25,000, then shouldn't they be eliminated? And was firing Christopher ever a consideration? Yes, it was an option, but instead of saying the ship's going down and he's ineffective, they used us as a scapegoat, arguing that we are running 'ineffective, outdated, immeasurable programs.'"

Maroni nodded his agreement. "I think it's because the board couldn't see or value what we did. At the end of the day, that's their problem--and that of the community," he said, adding that "it's appropriate to give clients notice, if you intend to close or cease providing services."

Stressing that the ultimate goal of prevention is to reduce HIV transmission, and noting that over the last 10 years HIV rates in our county have dropped by 40 percent, Gonzalez said, "While you can't scientifically show that when you hand out a condom it prevents anything, I have to think that prevention efforts must have done something along the way. Money is most effective when the transmission rate is low, like it is in Santa Cruz County, whereas in Africa, where the rates are high, how are you ever gonna stop it?"

It is for the above reasons that the disgruntled trio claims that Smith's talk of research-based funding is double-speak.

Noting that they've been working with researchers at UCSC, UCSF ad UC-Berkeley, Gonzalez said, "A lot of our programs have proven results. We wouldn't have got funded if they didn't."

Beggs concedes that "yes, ours is a unique manageable community, so you can go to Watsonville and study migrant farmworkers, injection drug users and monolingual Spanish speakers, but these communities don't trust the system and aren't going to come to board meetings. What it takes to gain their trust is so huge, and they do deserve services."

And then there are the charges of favoritism that stem from Smith hiring two people from the Arizona AIDS Project, which is where he worked before accepting the leadership position at SCAP a mere 11 months ago, without those jobs having been publicly posted.

This long litany of charges led county Board of Supervisors chairman Tony Campos to put the matter on the board's Feb. 15 agenda. County Supervisor Mardi Wormhoudt requested that the ensuing discussion be limited to whether SCAP has been complying with the terms of its contract.

As Wormhoudt, who was once on SCAP's board, explained, "The Supes fight fiercely to stay out of the internal business and management issues of agencies we fund." Saying she doesn't know how to evaluate the current debate over SCAP since she's out of touch with the group's inner workings these days, Wormhoudt did have this to say of Smith and his vision: "Christopher has a really interesting perspective on what needs to happen. Sometimes someone new coming in can see what needs to be done."

Casualties of Success?

What's ironic about the current meltdown at SCAP is that it's being fueled in part by funding decisions that put the squeeze on Santa Cruz County, despite the fact that SCAP has been at the forefront of HIV prevention in the past two decades.

As local state Assemblymember John Laird explains, the state now distributes HIV prevention funding on a per capita basis, a formula he says "makes no sense, because it penalizes people that have been successful."

The first openly gay assemblymember in Sacramento, Laird, who once served on SCAP's board and was its executive director, says he's trying to restore the lost funding somehow, but hasn't got anything nailed down yet.

"Right now, we're waiting," he says.

In the meantime, the state has shifted funding away from what he calls "squeeze counties" like Santa Cruz, which has seen relatively few cases in the last 20 years, towards urban areas such as San Francisco and Los Angeles, which saw 1,500 and 1,000 new cases last year alone.

Smith acknowledges that our county got in front of the epidemic early on, but says he believes that SCAP hasn't kept up with the evolution in how AIDS prevention is funded.

"The heyday of SCAP was over a decade ago. We haven't kept up with recent innovations, nor have we responded to the fact that funding has increasingly become research-based," he says.

Asked about Maroni and Beggs' contention that the July 1 cut is equal to 20 percent of the prevention budget, and only 10 percent of the agency's total budget, and thus does not equal a 63 percent cut in the agency's budget (as has been reported elsewhere,), but rather a 63 percent cut to one HIV prevention contract, Smith agrees with the math, but says this cut is just the latest in a long series of funding losses.

"Part of the problem is that as the funding has been cut, there hasn't been a proportional decrease in staff," he says. "For a nonprofit with a $1 million budget to have 18 staff members is crazy. The challenge now is how to do more with less. If there had been a way to do it differently, I would have."

As for the drop-in center, which serves injection drug users, sex workers and other low-income people, Smith says it closed due to fire damage, not funding cuts, and will reopen once insurance claims have been settled.

He says claims that all bilingual staff have been fired and that there are no plans to replace lost services to the Latino community are false, since bilingual SCAP employee Jorgé Brú, who works on client services, has been made full time.

"Will these be the exact same services? No, but I never said the previous programs were ineffective. I just said that they couldn't demonstrate their effectiveness. There was no significant data collection process, which meant we always ended up going to the state as beggar children," says Smith, who says he is planning a town meeting in the first part of March to put together a "programmatic response" to needs.

"We have a really aggressive agenda to remake SCAP."

Asked about charges of favoritism, Smith maintains there is nothing in SCAP's bylaws that governs its hiring process, though he does plan to submit a policy for how to do that in the future.

"When an organization is in a state of crisis, it's not abnormal for the leadership to seek out needed skills sets," he says.

Maroni, however, accuses Smith and SCAP's board of setting up "a parallel process."

"They decided amongst themselves to go ahead and eliminate the Education and Prevention Department, without informing the board or the public. Since this is a community-based organization, a 501c nonprofit, those decisions have to be made public, otherwise it becomes a private business," Maroni says.

It's unclear what else will come of this controversy--if anything. As to the question of whether Smith violated the terms of any of SCAP's contracts with the county, a letter from the county's Health Services Agency filed with the Board of Supervisors last week states that the agency has reviewed its contracts with SCAP and found the group to be in compliance.

Reached by cell phone last week, Maroni said that four of the terminated team has moved out of area, but all six are considering legal action.

"You can only do whatever you want, if people don't stick up for themselves, " said Maroni, stressing that his intention is to get SCAP to act in another way, not cripple it with legal fees. "The situation is unfortunate, but that's how you get people to pay attention and say, 'Oh, this is costing us money? We better not do it in future.' I'd like to see their rules of engagement for employees, the community and public dollars, instead of their current cowboy attitude."

Smith himself is not exactly sounding a conciliatory note.

"I'm sorry about the human cost and the lingering feelings of ill will, but for 10 months I tried to move the ball uphill with the existing team. Whether it was due to their unwillingness, inability or lack of clarity I don't know, but it didn't work," he says. "And at some point the healing must begin. If those individuals are truly concerned about SCAP, then I suggest they pitch in. The throwing of rocks, name calling and allegation-making has to stop."

The State Office of AIDS has convened a two-day summit Feb. 23-24 at the Beach Resort in Monterey to focus on strategies to leverage funds earmarked for nonurban communities. Call SCAP at 831.427.3900 for more information.

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From the February 16-23, 2005 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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