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Fair Questions 

Troubling silence on Sunset Junction finances

Wednesday, Aug 23 2000
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A steady stream of Silver Lake residents and business owners lumbered into the i2i World Cafe last Saturday morning for a neighborhood meeting they considered long overdue. At issue was the Sunset Junction Fair, the annual height-of-summer street bash that takes place this weekend in Silver Lake.

Inevitably in recent years, the sheer size of Sunset Junction -- which last year drew more than 100,000 visitors for two days of music, food and beer -- has given rise to complaints about traffic, noise and nuisance to local businesses. But the 30-plus residents and business owners convened at the shuttered cafe Saturday had other questions as well: How much money did the fair bring in? What was the breakdown on expenses? Where did the profits go?

The man with the answers was fair organizer Michael McKinley, who operates a private nonprofit organization, the Sunset Junction Neighborhood Alliance, largely on proceeds from the fair. McKinley showed up 90 minutes late, and promptly turned hostile in the face of repeated queries.

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Also on hand was Conrado Terrazas, aide to Councilwoman Jackie Goldberg. But Terrazas ducked out of the meeting just before McKinley arrived, leaving the assembly frustrated and grumbling.

Richard Miller, owner of Filamco Sewing Center on Sunset Boulevard, pressed McKinley for answers. ”A lot of community members don‘t know what is going on,“ Miller said. ”I don’t see trash picked up. You say youth programs, but I don‘t know where the money is going.“

Rather than provide answers, McKinley seemed only to reflect the crowd’s anger. ”People have unrealistic expectations of me,“ McKinley said. ”I am not a councilperson or mayor. I am just like you.“

When the questions turned to money, McKinley grew more defensive. ”There has been a lot of speculation and projection on me,“ he declared at one point. ”My credit is shot. I have had to refinance my house.“

Just how that all related to the fair was left unclear as McKinley called in his flunkies and split.

Little of the controversy is apparent from the fair itself, which occupies six full blocks of Sunset Boulevard for two days of bands, an eclectic selection of food, and information on community groups that rent booths to represent their various programs.

The fair began in 1980 as a way to find common ground for gays and Latinos -- two prominent groups in Silver Lake who at the time were having trouble living side by side. Despite a mid-‘80s riot, which many attribute to an overweening police presence, the peace effort was deemed a success, and the fair became an institution.

In its early years, the fair was run by a consortium of community groups, but by the mid-’90s, McKinley had become a dominant figure at the annual fest, as well as at several Silver Lake and Echo Park community organizations. McKinley established youth programs, including after-school programs at several schools, and founded a coffeehouse, Tsunami, where he occasionally employs neighborhood teenagers in city-funded job-training positions. McKinley also sits on the board of El Centro del Pueblo, a community-service gang-intervention nonprofit in Echo Park, which in turn provides McKinley with program money derived from the city-funded Bridges anti-gang project.

McKinley‘s casual style and reluctance to divulge operating information led to criticism from local residents and a number of former Sunset Junction volunteers. But the fair continued to grow; in 1997, revenues reached $150,000.

His various efforts have won McKinley some key supporters. Councilwoman Goldberg touts him highly, as does former Sunset Junction volunteer Priscilla Warren. ”Michael is brilliant and does a good job,“ Warren said recently. ”He cares a whole lot about the people he works with.“

But McKinley failed to make that connection with people outside his circle. Richard Miller and Silver Lake shopkeeper Roderick Williams, for example, each say they were rebuffed when they sought to pitch in with Sunset Junction. ”I’m interested in doing stuff for the neighborhood. I would like to be a member of the board,“ Williams said. But when he encountered McKinley at a community meeting earlier this year, the conversation quickly turned contentious.

Beginning in 1997, a new controversy arose when McKinley enclosed the fair in a fence and began charging an entry fee; the tariff was called a ”donation,“ but those who failed to pay were denied entrance. Observers expected that fee to result in a sharp rise in total revenue for the fair, but tax returns filed by the Sunset Junction Neighborhood Alliance show only gradual increases. New questions arose on the old theme, ”Show us the money.“

In 1999, for example, police estimated Sunset Junction attendance at 100,000. At $3 a head, that means $300,000; conservative estimates of booth rentals and beer sales push that figure to more than $400,000. Yet tax returns reported total revenue for the prior year at $209,275, with no breakdown by source of revenue.

Contacted at the i2i World Cafe meeting last week, McKinley declined to discuss fair finances with the Weekly. Members of the Sunset Junction board, including El Centro del Pueblo director Sandra Figueroa, also declined to discuss the program and its revenues. Calls to the group‘s treasurer, Ken Vannice, who’s lived in Oregon for the past two years, were not returned.

While McKinley and his cohorts won‘t talk about the operations of the Sunset Junction Neighborhood Alliance, other sources report that McKinley has scaled back a number of his more familiar operations.

In years past, McKinley operated a recreation program at Virgil Middle School, funded at $27,480 per year through the Bridges program. That contract came to an end July 1, and was not renewed. Robert Aguayo, a chief administrator at Bridges, refused to explain the decision but did say that there was an agreement among El Centro del Pueblo, Sunset Junction and Virgil Middle School to end the program. As it stands now, administrators at Virgil have yet to replace the Sunset Junction workers. One insider, who didn’t want to be identified, said that McKinley had a falling-out with Bridges coordinator Alba Salmeron, but Salmeron declined to discuss the school‘s contacts with McKinley.

Separately, McKinley has relied for years on the city’s federally funded youth-services program to hire summer staff. This year, McKinley did not submit a request for slots. In 1997, he employed 10 local youths to perform such duties as painting and designing murals, planting, and gardening, as well as working in his office and at the Tsunami coffeehouse. Last year, his request decreased by half, asking for slots to be filled in only for his office and coffeehouse.

Still another Sunset Junction project, a fountain and garden located at the northwest corner of Sunset and Griffith Park boulevards, has also seen better days. The City Council voted in 1995 to commission the Neighborhood Alliance to build the fountain, but also held it responsible for maintenance and repair costs. Since then, the alliance apparently has dropped out of the picture. ”McKinley has never cleaned the park,“ said Silver Lake artist Steven Marc, who took on the job after he became disgusted with its continued neglect. Marc says he is now tiring of the job. ”I am going to let all the grass die, all the rubbish pile up, let the homeless people come back, and I will not be the maid to clean up until it is fessed up who is actually responsible.“

Few expect the strife around McKinley to affect the success of this year‘s fair. Booth rentals and band bookings are running as strong as ever, and the ”donation“ required for entry is going up to $5.

But Richard Miller and McKinley’s other critics say they will continue to press for an accounting from the big weekend, and for broader community participation. Miller has one particular suggestion that he believes would clear much of the ill will generated over the past few years: ”Get someone else to take in the money. Go to St. Francis Church and get a volunteer.

“Get the responsibility off McKinley‘s back so no one can blame him.”

Contacted at his office to gauge his response to that suggestion, McKinley curtly replied, “I don’t want to talk to you.”

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