Ellie Perez, Long Beach LGBTQ Center interim executive director, accused of hostile work environment

Ellie Perez Long Beach LGBTQ Center

Ellie Perez, the interim executive director at the Long Beach LGBTQ Center who is a candidate for the executive director job, has created a hostile work environment, and the board has ignored pleas from staff to stop Perez’s toxic behavior, according to a former board member. Perez didn’t respond to questions from Q Voice News. Photo: Provided by Long Beach LGBTQ Center

Ellie Perez, the interim executive director at the Long Beach LGBTQ Center who is a candidate for the executive director job, has created a hostile work environment, and the board has ignored pleas from staff to stop Perez’s toxic behavior, according to a former board member.

In an email obtained by Q Voice News, the former board member lists several allegations against Perez:

  • “Racist, sexist, ageist and transphobic comments and actions” 
  • “Inappropriate sexual comments, gaslighting, mocking and derogatory comments of clients, staff members, and former board members”
  • “Creating a hostile workplace by violent, aggressive, and pervasive threats of retaliatory actions to staff”

If Perez, who has been interim executive director since July, is hired as the executive director, her conduct will threaten the stability of the 44-year-old non-profit agency and workers’ health and well-being, according to Sarah Gail Armstrong, the former board vice president who resigned in March.

The email

Armstrong made these allegations in a letter emailed last week to the Center’s board of directors and three Long Beach officials, including Mayor Rex Richardson; Vice Mayor Cindy Allen, whose Second District includes the Center; and Heather Van Wijk, the city’s ethics officer.

The letter also is signed by “The Concerned LGBTQIA+ Community of Long Beach.”

Armstrong, who joined the board in 2022, also sent the letter April 25 to Los Angeles County Supervisor Janice Hahn, who appointed Perez in December to the county’s new LGBTQ+ commission.

Armstrong also accused Center board President Eduardo Lara of “fostering a harmful work environment” and said the Center has engaged in “illegal use, and reporting grant funds” and refusing to pay former staff back pay, among other allegations.

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Requesting an investigation

The letter began with “Dear Supporters of Justice.”

“We are requesting a formal, and thorough investigation of Elizabeth (Ellie) Perez, Eduardo Lara, and The Center itself, as we have exhausted all avenues of communication with The Center, and are very concerned that Ellie’s possible appointment as Executive Director of The LGBTQ Center Long Beach, as well as her role as LGBTQ Representative on the new LGBTQ Commission, will cause further emotional damage to an already marginalized LGBTQIA+ community,” Armstrong wrote.

“We are also worried that without external intervention The Center will continue to refuse to implement policy changes to help prevent such harm or corruption from happening again, as it has done in the past,” Armstrong wrote.

“We implore you to conduct a thorough investigation of these incidents as our community’s future wellbeing and the safety of The Center’s staff depend on it,” Armstrong wrote.

Ellie Perez responds

Q Voice News reached Perez on her cell phone, but she didn’t respond to any questions.

“I will send you an email,” Perez said and then hung up.

Q Voice News never received an email from Perez.

Q Voice News contacted Lara on his cell phone; he also didn’t respond to questions. Lara said to call the Center’s spokesperson, Cory Allen, a long-time Long Beach political operative who worked on Doug Haubert’s re-election campaign in 2022. Allen also is a member of the city’s Health and Human Services Commission.

“Anything personnel related we can’t talk about. It’s handled by HR (human resources),” he said.

“It’s unfortunate that someone would send that email,” Allen said.

‘Collaborative letter’

Armstrong said the decision to write “this collaborative letter was made because for years community members, staff, and Board members have followed the guidelines for reporting incidents provided by The Center’s bylaws & employee handbook. Yet, they are still being ignored, and being subjected to working in a harmful environment.”

Allen said, “The Center follows proper protocols. That’s not what happened at the Center.”

Asking officials to investigate

At least four complaints have been filed against Perez, and they have not yet been investigated, according to three people familiar with the situation who want to remain anonymous because they fear retaliation.

The letter said that Allen, Hahn, and Richardson “have a responsibility to investigate the claims” because Lara and Perez  are “associated with their offices in various capacities.”

Separately, Allen and Richardson have sponsored various Center events since Perez became interim executive director in July.

Lara is chair of Long Beach’s Equity and Health Commission. He was appointed in 2022 by Robert Garcia, the former mayor.

The mayor has the authority, with city council approval, to remove a commissioner.

Several calls were made to Allen’s cell phone, but she didn’t answer.

Q Voice News emailed Van Wijk, the city’s ethics officer, and requested a phone interview. She requested more information to be “prepared,” but Q Voice News declined and again requested a live interview. Van Wijk hasn’t responded.

Richardson’s spokesperson, Malini Basu, didn’t respond to questions and referred Q Voice News to Paul Barragan-Monge, the city’s policy director and LGBTQ+ liaison, but he didn’t respond to email requests for an interview.

Hahn’s office said they didn’t receive the email.

‘Shining a spotlight on misconduct’

Rick Jorgensen, an employment law attorney in Orange County, said the letter writers had every legal right to send the email.

“It’s unfortunate that they created a working environment where that email had to be sent,” Jorgensen said.

Under California law, you can’t stop someone from disclosing a working condition and you can’t fire someone for disclosing working conditions,” he said.

“Shining a spotlight on misconduct is the way you deal with it,” Jorgensen said. “When you deal in secret, it makes it worse and allows a hostile work environment to fester.”

The Center must take these allegations seriously and investigate them, he said.

“Every organization has an obligation under California and federal law to provide a work environment free from harassment, hostile work environment, discrimination, and retaliation,” Jorgensen said.

“They need to take reasonable actions to protect the employees, including but not limited to removing her while they investigate the allegations or terminating her,” he said.

“Nothing will change until the employers are held accountable and there is some level of consequence,” Jorgensen said.

Center problems in 2020

Armstrong’s open letter is similar to a 2020 scenario at the Center. In that instance, a social media campaign, SaveTheCenterLB, was launched by former Center employees who accused Porter Gilberg of racism and creating a hostile work environment.

Three complaints were received by the board before Gilberg was put on leave, and the board hired a lawyer and private investigator to look into the allegations.

Several former employees had accused board members of ignoring the complaints against Porter.

When the independent investigation was completed, Gilberg’s contract was not renewed and some board members left.

The findings of the investigation, which Gilberg said were unfair, were not made public.

Eduardo Lara Ellie Perez

Long Beach LGBTQ Center Board President Eduardo Lara is accused of “fostering a harmful work environment” in an open letter sent to the board and several Long Beach city officials. Ellie Perez, interim executive director at the Center, told staff that Lara is her “best friend and he has my back, if anyone ever complains it will be dismissed,” according to an open letter sent by former board Vice President Sarah Gail Armstrong. Lara didn’t respond to questions from Q Voice News and referred all questions to the Center’s spokesperson. Photo: Eduardo Lara city council campaign in 2019

Perez, Lara best friends?

In the Perez case, the letter also said that Perez has told staff that Lara, the board president, is her “best friend and he has my back, if anyone ever complains it will be dismissed.”

Lara was a board member in July and supported Perez’s selection as interim executive director.

Allegations of nepotism are problematic, Jorgensen said.

“In any employment situation, you should have multiple layers making sure you have a safe working environment. When there are no checks and balances in place, you’re going to have problems,” he said.

“If you are prone to be abusive, you are a bully, and you are friends with your boss, you are in your comfort zone. You feel like you are untouchable and protected, and you are more likely to act out. It’s ripe for growing racism, sexism, all the isms, and a hostile work environment,” Jorgensen said.

Those allegations also can create financial problems for an organization, Jorgensen said.

“All a nonprofit has is their goodwill and reputation. When it’s tarnished, it makes it more difficult to raise donations and complete their mission,” Jorgensen said. “You can’t do that when people hear there is harassment, hostility, and racism in the organization.”

Who is Ellie Perez?

On Perez’s Center bio it reads, “Ellie Perez is an experienced management professional” with “an accomplished history” in the field.

In the letter, however, Armstrong questioned “the truth and accuracy” of that statement because they couldn’t find any proof to verify it.

Q Voice News independently researched Perez’s work claims. On her LinkedIN page, Perez lists four work experiences.

  • AutoZone store manager from 1996 to 2000, the city location isn’t mentioned.
  • Tobinworld School as a manager and vocational coach from September 2000 to October 2006 where she trained and supervised special needs students at an on-campus Baskin Robbins Ice Cream shop. The city location isn’t mentioned.
  • Teacher’s aid in special education at the Los Angeles Unified School District from October 2006 to July 2023.
  • Works as an infant massage therapist from June 2017 to present
  • Executive director of Visit Gay Long Beach, a small travel-oriented nonprofit with no employees that she operates with her wife, Angela Valley. The time frame isn’t clear because two different lengths of time are mentioned.

Allen, the Center spokesperson, dismissed concerns about Perez’s work history.

“Her past work experience is all irrelevant,” he said. “She’s been a  great interim  executive director.”

When Perez submitted her application to be a Center board member in 2021, under previous non-profit experience, she wrote “none,” according to the document obtained by Q Voice News.

In a phone interview last year, Jason Acosta, who was the board president at the time, was asked to describe Perez’s experience related to being interim executive director.

“I’m not in a position right now to look through her whole resume. I don’t have that in front of me,” Acosta said. “I’m not going to speak specifically to each management experience that she has.”

Acosta said that Perez is “fully qualified” and the board “has full faith in her leadership.”

Acosta is no longer a board member.

‘What the hell is going on there?’

But some community members said they don’t think she is qualified or have faith in her leadership. 

Gary Michovich and Henri Winters, who had been major fundraisers for the Center, made a small donation to the center’s Q Film Festival last year.

Shortly thereafter, Michovich had a phone meeting with Ellie Perez to learn about her background and experience.

“When I asked her about the budget for her nonprofit, she wasn’t aware of her own budget. I was shocked,” Michovich said. “That’s your own 501 c 3, and you don’t know? She’s about to run a Center with a $2 million budget, and she doesn’t know her own budget? I was turned off right away. Either she didn’t know it off the top of her head, or she didn’t want to say because it is so small.”

Michovich was equally unimpressed with Perez dodging questions about her experience, he said.

“She kept telling me that the most important thing was to have passion and commitment to the community. I kept asking about her experience, and she kept saying she had passion,” he said. “That’s not enough to run the Center. She should have been able to rattle off the skills necessary for the job. I had the impression she was digging really deep to get answers for the question.

“Eventually, she said she had management experience from an auto parts store,” Michovich said. “Running the Center is very different from running an auto parts store. You need to know about grant writing, having a health clinic, getting donations.

“It made me more alarmed. I thought, What the hell is going on there?”

Michovich said he and his husband “are very concerned and worried about the direction of the Center. As of right now, we will not be making any more donations to or fundraising for the Center until we have more confidence in what’s going on over there.”

About the author

Phillip Zonkel

Award-winning journalist Phillip Zonkel spent 17 years at Long Beach's Press-Telegram, where he was the first reporter in the paper's history to have a beat covering the city's vibrant LGBTQ. He also created and ran the popular and innovative LGBTQ news blog, Out in the 562.

He won two awards and received a nomination for his reporting on the local LGBTQ community, including a two-part investigation that exposed anti-gay bullying of local high school students and the school districts' failure to implement state mandated protections for LGBTQ students.

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