Debate Over Utah AIDS Foundation Continues

Nearly three weeks ago, a group of local activists called for the resignation of Stan Penfold, executive director of the Utah AIDS Foundation, and for a restructuring in the organization’s board and programming.

Activist Richard Matthews called for Penfold’s resignation during the Rally For Equality, which Turner Bitton organized on Aug. 14. Shortly after the rally, Matthews posted a number of criticisms of UAF on his Facebook. These included the organization’s cutting back HIV prevention programming, lack of programming for HIV-positive youth or a youth-focused prevention program, limited access to the foundation’s testing site, and a small board of trustees. He also wrote that Penfold was rarely in the office, that his position on the Salt Lake City Council was interfering with his job, and that Penfold had not worked with other community groups to address a shortfall in funding for low-income people with HIV/AIDS in 2009.

“We are losing the battle against HIV, and the response of our flagship HIV foundation is to decrease prevention efforts!! By all accounts, this is due more to lack of leadership than lack of funds,” Matthews wrote. “It does not appear that the leadership is particularly passionate about HIV prevention. The UAF needs our help, we must act. Our young people deserve better. We deserve better.”

“I have received dozens of private messages from former donors, former staffers, former clients, and current and former volunteers. The vast majority of which expressed enthusiastic support for this campaign,” Matthews recently told QSaltLake. “I do believe the whole community supports a change in our approach to HIV prevention.”

Within days, the post garnered nearly 100 comments on Facebook as well as widespread discussion throughout the community. As the discussion unfolded, Shawn Jackson, the chair of UAF’s board of trustees, said that he called for a meeting between himself, board vice-chair Lon Jenkins, Matthews, Bitton, and Penfold. He said the five men walked away from the meeting “with greater knowledge and some ideas about how to reach 18 to 21-year-old” men who have sex with men, the group among which HIV infections are growing the fastest and who Matthews said UAF was not serving well.

“We actually were able to implement some of those ideas that first weekend after our meeting,” said Jackson. “I think we are all very lucky to have two such dedicated individuals who are both on board to help improve our community.”

The ideas, said Penfold, all focused on prevention efforts. On Aug. 20, Penfold said UAF’s outreach team went to clubs that cater to patrons under 21 and passed out condoms, safer sex packets, and cards for a free HIV test at the foundation.

“We’re going to do more of that now, to be more visible in that population because that is an increasingly high-risk population,” said Penfold.

On Aug. 27, Penfold said that gay and bisexual men 22 and under who show up at the foundation’s HIV test site will receive a free HIV test.

“It’ll take us a while to get the word out, but we’re starting it at the test site immediately,” he said.

Helping Youth

Penfold said that UAF is aware of the difficulties in reaching young gay and bisexual men, and is considering how to meet these challenges.

“All of us are frustrated,” he said. “I know there are 19-year-olds getting positive results on an HIV test, so where, as a community, do we have an opportunity to interact with them before they’re sexually active? If they’re showing up at 19 with an HIV reactive result, they’re sexually active at 18, 17. They’re not always identifying as gay.”

Worse, said Penfold, Utah schools prohibit safer sex education and “talking about homosexuality as an OK lifestyle,” meaning that many youths don’t know how HIV is transmitted.

“I believe we have been successful with the ‘use a condom’ message in the past,” said Jackson. “We all need to remember that our youth are not receiving that message, and they don’t see HIV as a big concern anymore.”

Another challenge, Penfold noted, is that youth are using the internet to meet up for sex instead of going to clubs, making older prevention efforts ineffective.

“They’re not in the bars,” he said, “And some are going to straight clubs even though they might be having same-sex sex, but they’re not showing up at gay clubs because they’re not out. We’re assessing [if] anyone is doing outreach into the straight underage clubs. [We’re asking] do we have access there, can we do access there?”

In the past, said Penfold, UAF has partnered with Planned Parenthood to do outreach in straight bars and clubs.

“Sometimes Planned Parenthood can let into some of them when we might not be able to,” he said.

Community Outreach

But the problem, say some activists, is that Penfold has not reached out to other groups, even when they have offered to help. As QSaltLake reported in a previous article, the paper was on an e-mail list last fall where People With AIDS Coalition of Utah Director Toni Johnson and other community leaders kept asking Penfold to meet with them to talk about the needs of people with HIV and AIDS after the state’s Ryan White funding was cut off. Penfold, who was in the final phases of a successful run for Salt Lake City Council, did not attend the meetings, even after the election was over.

Further, some critics have said that Penfold has deliberately interfered with funding for people with HIV/AIDS. Shortly after Jackson posted an open letter to the community on Facebook addressing some of Matthews’ points, Stuart Merrill, former director of the Campaign to End Aids–Utah, sent him and QSaltLake a message in which he blasted Penfold and called Jackson’s letter “wordy; full of hyperbole and outright lies.”

Merrill told Jackson that Penfold had deliberately gotten in his way when he lobbied the state Legislature to augment Utah’s AIDS Drug Assistance Program, a federally funded program that helps low-income people with HIV/AIDS pay for their prescriptions.

“The first year I was lobbying for additional funding at the Utah State Legislature I received calls from friends in the Legislature stating that Stan had contacted our friends on the Hill to tell them not to listen to me, that I was not telling the truth, and that we did not need additional funding,” Merrill wrote. “I found out Stan had called [openly gay state politicians] Scott McCoy, Jackie Biskupski, and Chris Johnson, among others to disseminate these lies about me. Whatever his motivation he was clearly trying to undermine my personal credibility.”

After this, Merrill said that he asked the Utah Department of Health to back him up by saying that they, in fact, needed the money. When he tried to talk to Penfold, Merrill said that Penfold would not take his call and left his office “telling everyone he suddenly fell ill” when Merrill called and said he’s coming to his office to talk in person.

Merrill also said Penfold did the same thing again when he left the state and Johnson, his cousin, took over his lobbying efforts.

“Every time Stan was confronted he released eloquently void statements and avoided all subsequent community meetings,” he wrote. “Stan’s actions to this day horrify me and shock me. Stan’s actions did negatively impact the health of UAF clients.”

Previously, Merrill had brought up some of these concerns on Matthew’s initial Facebook post calling for Penfold’s resignation. When asked (before Merrill sent his message to Jackson) if his allegations of sabotage were true, Penfold said:

“This is my perspective. Stuart did an incredible job and has been the only one I’m aware of that has successfully lobbied the state for HIV-specific funding. And he actually got some out of them. That’s the only time I’ve ever seen it happen.”

“I guess I’m sorry he didn’t think I was supportive enough,” he added.

In his open letter, Jackson concurred.

“Stan, the board and staff have never told the state of Utah that no additional funds were needed for HIV. In fact we have always said that we could use all the money we could get for HIV and AIDS,” he wrote. “Stan has actively voiced how the state should step up its funding for this and other programs. This has always been a priority. The Foundation has lobbied the legislature for funding. The Foundation has also partnered with several entities to lobby the legislature on legislation that would affect Medicaid and people living with AIDS. This past year the Foundation partnered with Planned Parenthood to affect important legislation around prostitution laws that would affect the Foundation’s constituents. ”

When asked about criticisms that he had refused to work with other community organizations, Penfold said the only example he could think of was his refusal of an advertising grant from the Utah Department of Health in 2008.

“Under the Bush administration there was a huge shift in focus away from prevention programs and, we felt, away from prevention programs directed at gay men,” he said. “They focused almost all their resources on [HIV testing], so we were in the process of working through our contact with the state and we really agonized over it.”

Ultimately, Penfold said that UAF’s board voted to turn down the money in order to create a prevention program that targeted gay and bisexual men “with direct, blunt supportive messages” about condom use and safer sex.

What Now?

Although Matthews said that UAF implemented some changes immediately after the meeting, “any discussion of the allegations that had been raised was avoided.” Further, Bitton, one of Matthews’ most outspoken supporters, said that he would be taking a limited role in the campaign to change UAF.

Shortly after the meeting, Bitton announced he was stepping down from administering the Facebook petition calling for Penfold to resign. In an open letter to the community posted to Facebook moments before Bitton removed himself, he wrote that he “lacked the passion that Richard has” for the issue, and that his attempts to work toward a solution during the meeting resulted in “essentially [throwing]  Richard under a bus.”

“I voiced my concerns about a plan calling for the resignation of Stan, and instead called upon the UAF to work to better its programming and its  image within our community. I also let it be known that I would work with the UAF toward this goal,” Bitton wrote.

“To Richard, I am sorry for what he believed was my ‘jockeying’ for a seat on the board of the UAF,” Bitton continued, noting that he had no intention of seeking or accepting such a position. “Let me make it perfectly clear that what may appear as weakness on my behalf is merely  an attempt to see lasting change brought to the UAF through dialogue and positive approaches to the future of this community.”

“I ask you to stand with Richard in his protest of the UAF because his heart is true and his grievances are just,” he added, before reminding readers that they were “stakeholders in the future” of the organization.

Bitton noted that he and Matthews have scheduled more meetings with Jenkins, Penfold and Jackson.

“There is a lot of disagreement on how that [change to HIV prevention in Utah] should be done,” Matthews said. “I feel that most people that are familiar with the foundation and its work over it’s 25 years of service agree that its time for new leadership at the foundation. While many of them like Stan Penfold, most would agree that 11 years as the director is long enough in a position that constantly relies on new ideas and innovations.”

“[An increase in HIV infections] is a problem the entire country is facing,” said Jackson. “That is one of the reasons we have been so deliberate about evaluating and re-designing our prevention programming.  We know that what used to work no longer does.  The Board and the staff have been looking at programs in other communities to see what is working, and what can we modify and use here to have the greatest impact.”

Bitton and Matthews have also proposed 11 such new ideas and innovations, which are as follows:

1) The director should accept a 12-month probationary term, during which he must complete at least half of the changes to follow. He must: A) raise donations to the UAF by 10 percent, B) reinstate programming for HIV+/AIDS individuals, support groups C) accept a reduction in pay to compensate for the loss of donations.

2) The director and board should work together to amend the bylaws of the UAF to limit the term of a director to five years, at the end of which the director will become a member of the board for a minimum of two years, after which they will be eligible to become director for five more years.

3) The board should permanently increase the number of members on the board to at least 15, creating subcommittees for the various tasks to be performed by the UAF.

4) The board should amend the bylaws to require board members to undergo and evaluation every two years where they must show that they are: A) involved in other community events that raise the visibility of the UAF. B) prove that they have continually educated themselves and thus presented new ideas to the board. If either is found to be unsatisfactory, the board member should be replaced.

5) The board should promptly and immediately increase diversity on the board to include those who are typically unrepresented on the board, i.e. trangender [people], those under 21, Hispanics and minorities, and those affiliated with community organizations.

6) The UAF should endorse and encourage participation in programs for prevention at other organizations, i.e. FAYME at the Pride Center [a group for young gay and bisexual men], SimplySocial, and OUTlet. The UAF should also understand that it is a community-based organization and thus it should become not only an active member in the community but work with other organizations as the standard bearer for the fight again HIV/AIDS; essentially it is the responsibility of the UAF to act as a leader and channel of ideas to the community as a whole, as Richard has suggested.

7) Beginning immediately, the UAF should implement a program of education at bars, 21 and under clubs, and activity groups such as SimplySocial. It is the responsibility of the UAF to work as the first line of education in the areas that are typically inaccessible to organizations such as the Pride Center.

8) The UAF should hold age-, income-, and accessibility-appropriate fund raising, organizing, and outreach events. It is irresponsible for the UAF to assume that the constituency in the most danger (younger, less economically free individuals) can afford to pay $100 for a night at the Hotel Monaco [for a ticket to Monaco’s annual Red Party fundraiser].

9) The UAF should accept immediately that it must be the channel of feedback on the issues of HIV/AIDS, and as a result should hold a quarterly board meeting that is open and accessible to the public. Meetings can be conducted like a city council meeting with limited time to speak, and the director must always be present to be spoken to directly.

10) The UAF should undergo a significant restructuring, training and advisement period from a certified instruction agency. The UAF should also be required to undergo training on the proper treatment of volunteers and how to effectively manage them. The director should also be responsible to meet with all volunteers regularly so that they have a chance to speak and voice their concerns directly to the director.

11) The director of the UAF shall once a month publish, release and distribute a report on the vitality, needs and direction of the foundation. It is the responsibility of the director to ensure that the needs of the organization are met and as a result it is time for him to become accessible to and answerable to the community as a whole.

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