In the wake of the controversy surrounding the 2016 LA Pride event, and questions surrounding the financial transparency of its organizers, Christopher Street West, the City of West Hollywood adopted a special events policy requiring non-profits seeking financial support from the city to provide financial and other information in order to receive funding.
Last night, the West Hollywood City Council abdicated its opportunity for oversight of such special events by approving $36,000 of funding for the Los Angeles Volleyball Organization’s WeHo Sports Festival without questioning the event organizer’s veracity or viability.
In 2015, when sponsorship of the first WeHo Sports Festival (WSF) was proposed, organizers estimated there would be 2,000 attendees when they requested $25,000 from the city. The actual numbers reported in the staff report a year later were 800 athletes and 300 spectators.
In 2016, the city sponsored the event to the tune of $50,000, with another $15,000 coming from Visit West Hollywood. So in all, a total of $65,000 of the event’s $68,500 in sponsorship came from West Hollywood taxpayers. And what were the results? According to the 2017 WSF staff report, 642 people participated, or $101.25 of taxpayer dollars per participant.
Although the WSF organizers, the Los Angeles Volleyball Association, are based in West Hollywood, at 1121 N. La Cienega Blvd., the venues listed on their website are all in Westwood, so perhaps the “H” is silent (or invisible if you look at their logo)!
Why does this matter? Regardless of how you feel about the appropriateness of the city spending tax dollars on WSF, you should care if you think that the city should have oversight over other events and you believed the special events policy would help. As a test case for how the city is implementing the policy, the WeHo Sports Festival offers little hope for those looking for transparency or accountability.
The staff report presented to the Council only looks at the event budget, as opposed to the organization’s budget, and therefore does not answer questions about how each year’s event losses are covered or profits are dispersed. If you were hoping to know what Elton John’s AIDS Foundation does with the millions it raises at its Oscars party in the park, you’re out of luck.
The City Council had no discussion about the viability of an event that relies so heavily on public funding – more than 70% coming from the city and VisitWeHo – while still losing money, nor did its members ask whether we should really be underwriting an event that for the most part is taking place several miles to our west.
Furthermore, the city provided no context or analysis about the value it is getting from its proposed investment in third-party special events like this. Is $101.25 per participant a lot or a little to be spending on a special event? How does it compare to what we spend per participant on the Women’s Leadership Conference, Halloween or Pride? Without context, the public has to break out the calculator and do some research.
Unfortunately for the city, by applying such little scrutiny to the WSF, they’ve allowed other special event organizers to claim that any deeper scrutiny of an event than that given to WSF is capricious. And so, in one consent calendar vote, the council has rendered its special events policy toothless.