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Head of Major AIDS Agency Quits Under Fire

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Times Medical Writer

The executive director of AIDS Project Los Angeles, the oldest and largest AIDS service agency in the county, has resigned amid charges that the organization has strayed from its mission, been insensitive to minorities and been allowed to slide into debt, officials said Thursday.

John C. Wolfe, who took over just 11 months ago, submitted his resignation at a heated board meeting Tuesday night at which members of the staff announced a vote of no confidence in top management. His announcement was greeted by a standing ovation that included some members of the board.

For the record:

12:00 a.m. Aug. 29, 1988 For the Record
Los Angeles Times Monday August 29, 1988 Home Edition Part 1 Page 2 Column 5 Metro Desk 2 inches; 47 words Type of Material: Correction
Due to an editing error, Friday’s Times incorrectly stated that the resignation of John C. Wolfe as executive director of AIDS Project Los Angeles was greeted by a standing ovation by members of the audience at a board meeting. Actually, the standing ovation followed announcement by APLA staff of a vote of no confidence in top management.

“There’s been a feeling in the community that they’ve kind of lost their center in terms of client services,” Michael Weinstein, president of the AIDS Hospice Foundation, said Thursday. “There’s been a feeling that we’re not getting the bang for the buck.”

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“What we’re really dealing with is an entire situation in flux,” said Rabbi Allen Freehling, chairman of the Los Angeles County Commission on AIDS and a member of the AIDS Project Los Angeles board. The agency, which has an annual budget of $10 million, about one-third public funds, has embarked upon a reassessment of its role, size and funding, Freehling said.

Wolfe’s resignation, effective in late September, comes as the 6-year-old agency struggles with serious financial problems. Officials say a shortfall in anticipated revenues and delays by granting agencies have contributed to a nearly $1-million debt.

AIDS Project Los Angeles is currently eliminating one half-time and five full-time positions from its 137-member work force and cutting salaries by 5%. It will close one day a month and reduce capital purchases in an attempt to cut expenses by $80,000 a month.

Some officials also trace the crunch in part to “burnout” within the gay community: In the absence of other sources of funding, AIDS Project Los Angeles, as well as other AIDS service agencies, has had to lean heavily on the gay community for support.

But some critics charge that AIDS Project Los Angeles has grown top-heavy and bureaucratic, devoting large chunks of its budget to administration, fund-raising and communications at the expense of client services. They also say there has been a lack of attention to the growing financial problems.

“It was clear that the financial reporting to the board was grossly inadequate, and they were caught by surprise with a substantial cash flow problem,” said Dave Johnson, chairman of the United AIDS Coalition, a group of service organizations that includes AIDS Project Los Angeles.

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Lost Sight

Meanwhile, some AIDS Project Los Angeles staff members and clients charge that the agency has lost sight of its fundamental mission. They say the agency should focus on client services, such as its food bank, dental clinic, transportation services, buddy program and shelter.

Some also charge that the organization has been insensitive toward ethnic minority communities, where the epidemic is increasingly shifting and being felt. Several minority staff members recently quit in protest against what they said was the agency’s failure to address minority issues.

Wolfe, a psychologist who formerly headed a psychiatric services arm of American Medical International, the for-profit hospital chain, said in an interview late Thursday that he was resigning because he believed he was no longer able to provide the leadership the agency needs.

Wolfe said the board had offered him an interim contract that he found unacceptable and interpreted as a vote of no confidence.

“It put me in a position that I felt was debilitating in terms of my ability to go ahead and function,” he said.

By contrast, he said he did not interpret the comments of the staff members at the board meeting as an attack on him. He said many of the problems they saw at the agency antedated his tenure and might no longer be problems if they had been addressed two years earlier.

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Wolfe said the agency’s financial problems are common in other nonprofit agencies and, in part, are seasonal, reflecting the annual funding cycle. As for the charge of top-heaviness, he said some staff members fail to recognize the administrative needs of a large organization.

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