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Multiple Anime Expo Staffers Resign in Board Dispute

posted on by Egan Loo
4 out of 7 division heads, others resign in protest over new CEO, interim chair

A confidential source close to the Anime Expo Convention Committee (AX Concom) has confirmed with ANN that the majority of the convention's division managers have resigned over disputes with the Board of Directors of The Society for the Promotion of Japanese Animation (SPJA). SPJA is the non-profit parent organization that oversees the convention, while AX Concom is the top level of Anime Expo's operations. Among those who have handed in their resignations are the following:

  • Veronica Hernandez (exhibits division manager)
    • Jay Lee (exhibits assistant division manager)
  • Joe Woo (interactive events division manager)
  • Rob Wu (operations division manager)
    • Derf Tang (operations assistant division manager)
    • Miko Estacio (operations assistant division manager)
  • Jason Shuai (programming division manager)
    • Joseph Kitzman (programming assistant division manager)

ANN's source said that over 80% of the AX staff are ready to resign in support of their division heads and added, "My staff wants to quit with me." A mass resignation of that quantity could amount to as much as "400 staff members," not including volunteers. The resigning staffers are asking for the removal of SPJA's new CEO Michael Lattanzio and Interim Con Chair Joyce Lim.

When asked to comment on the resignations, Lattanzio told ANN, "It seems the drama continues. For years the Anime Expo Division of the SPJA has experienced turbulence from Concom management. […] Last summer the Board of Directors made a decision to transform the SPJA into a professional, results-driven company focused on serving its attendees and the industry." Lattanzio added, "We wish those who have resigned the best of luck in their future endeavors and encourage those who are still with us to become more actively involved."

SPJA Board Chairman Marc Perez also responded, "Certainly, the Board is concerned that some of its valued Concom staff have resigned, while also understanding that transitions such as this can be difficult. We invited those whom have had concerns to express them in a professional manner through proper channels, rather than through threats and resignations. […] The SPJA Board hopes very much that the SPJA members and staff will give Mr. Lattanzio the fair chance he deserves […] but understands and accepts the resignations of those who find that they cannot or will not do so."

The past few months have seen growing tension between AX Concom and SPJA. AX Concom consists of the Con Chair, the managers of the convention's seven main divisions, and the assistant division managers. Recent discontent regarding the new CEO, the SPJA Board of Directors, and their business decisions has caused strife amongst the staff.

Three of the managers who are still with the organization are the interactive events assistant division manager and two staffers of the audio/visual services division. There are also two vacant division manager positions from membership services, although those empty seats are the result of previous resignations unrelated to the most recent walkout.

Conversations with ANN's sources reveal that several members of AX Concom are preparing to audit the Board of Directors, and vote for the expulsion for most of the directors, with the exception of Ruby Wang.

SPJA CEO Michael Lattanzio & Termination of BAM! Marketing's Contract

In September, the SPJA hired Lattanzio as its new CEO, a position that grants him duties as the "general manager and fiscal agent responsible for the adminstration of the Corporation's program finances and personnel within the framework of the policies, principles, and practices established by the Board." With prior work experience at NBC Universal, Lattanzio led the development of an international Universal Studios theme park in Osaka.

Amongst his first actions as CEO was to terminate the SPJA's contract with BAM! Marketing, Publicity, & Promotions, the public relations firm which has been providing services to Anime Expo for the past six years. Prior to the termination of the contract, Lattanzio reportedly asked BAM! founder Chase Wang during a September 10 meeting for a list of his American and Japanese contacts, which was refused. An official letter written by Wang to Lattanzio at a later date discussed the denial further, citing their sensitive, proprietary nature. The contract was officially terminated September 25, 2009.

In an internal email sent to the SPJA, which has been confirmed by several sources, Lattanzio announced the termination, saying that "the SPJA will be going in a new direction where we will aggressively promote, raise awareness, strengthen existing partnerships while simultaneously establishing new ones." In a later letter sent to SPJA members, Lattanzio added that "the SPJA's rate of attendance at Anime Expo has not significantly increased during the years that [Wang] was overseeing our marketing efforts. These revenues, which should be a core part of the SPJA business, need significant improvement for our business to continue and to grow."

The issue was brought up at an SPJA meeting on November 21, 2009, which was attended by the Board of Directors, Lattanzio, the Membership Committee, and several other members. However, due to ongoing legal arbitration between BAM! and the SPJA, the board was advised by their legal representative Jaqueline Sabec not to speak on the matter. Wang has not been able to comment on the issue.

Since then, the role previously held by Wang has been superseded by Kimberly Groomes, whose previous work experience includes contributing to Warner's Extra TV, as well as being a district manager for Automatic Data Processing, Inc.

AX Concom Voices Concerns

Although the issues regarding the termination of BAM!'s services remains at the forefront of the current tensions towards the SPJA, other complaints have been lodged by members of the AX Concom and the SPJA. Many of the concerns were first revealed in an October 19, 2009 letter to the SPJA Membership Committee, the voting membership body, the Board of Directors, as well as AX Concom and the AX Managers.

The content of the letter, the veracity of which has been confirmed by several sources, called for a Vote of No Confidence of most of the Board of Directors (Marc Perez, Paul Wilson, Bryant Quan, Hank Wong, Hiroki Onodera), Lattanzio, and Groomes. In the letter was a concern that "the recent actions of the Board of Directors have created a chain of events that is putting SPJA/AX into financial distress as well as putting us on a path of possible involuntary dissolution."

Regarding the organization's issues with BAM!, the letter also claimed slander and libel towards Wang by Lattanzio, and a violation of the written and binding contract held with BAM! However, these concerns were not able to be addressed during the November 21 open SJPA meeting, due to recommendations by legal counsels Jacqueline Sabec and Emilio Huertas.

In an attempt to reconcile differences, a list of other concerns was raised during the November 21 meeting. Among those are several issues claiming a misuse of SPJA funds for travel. The first was Lattanzio's invoice of US$8,447.80 for two business class seats to Japan for himself and Groomes through Yamato Travel Bureau. Although details of his contract regarding travel stipends were not disclosed, Lattanzio commented that business class accommodations were among the "perks" listed, saying, "I don't know how many know CEOs in the business, but there are certain 'perks'—privileges." He added that, "before we plan any event or business trip, it has to get board approval, so I went through my process. I went through the proper channels in accordance with my responsibilities."

One of the responses regarding this issue is that none of the previous SPJA CEOs have flown business class on AX's dime, to which Sabec responded, "That's probably true, but… you guys have may not have necessarily been in a professional enough organization to know the world from my perspective…. If you're asking a new executive to come on board that has a lot of experience in the entertainment industry… you know he's reasonably going to expect the same kind of treatment that other executives at his level receive."

Other travel concerns regarded Perez' numerous flights to San Francisco, with the provision, "It has yet to be established of whether or not it is on behalf of the SPJA." Perez, whose fiancée resides in San Francisco, stated that when he visits for business purposes, the purchases are approved by the finance department. This statement was corroborated by one of the SPJA members present at the meeting.

Other concerns raised by certain AX staff members also included a comment made by Lattanzio at a November 14 meeting in which he compared volunteers to "flies" that must be "shooed away" if they don't abide by his rules. Responding to this concern, Lattanzio said that the quote was taken out of context, saying "I was making a statement about how the organization is moving and how we are making changes, and that anyone that decides to try to…sabotage the organization, we're going to have to address it accordingly… We're not going to tolerate disrespectful behavior on how we operate… This is not an organization that should be built on drama. It should be about us trying to all work together as a team."

SPJA's History

Established in 1991 by anime club members from the University of California, the SPJA's primary mandate is to manage Anime Expo. Anime Expo has steadily grown to be the largest anime convention in North America. However, the convention had grown by an average of less than 3% per year in the last three years, compared with 23%+ growth per year previously.

The SPJA has already gone through an internal overhaul before; in 2007, a staff revolt against the old Board of Directors resulted indirectly in a large-scale resignation by the board members, followed by a new set of bylaws and a new board.

Under the current system, board members are elected for two-year terms by the SPJA membership, and can be audited via the Membership Committee. As stated in the bylaws, the board is primarily responsible for overseeing personnel policies, as well as financial decisions include the annual budget, long-term financial planning, and accountability regarding corporate resources.

SPJA CEO Michael Lattanzio's Statement

It seems the drama continues. For years the Anime Expo Division of the SPJA has experienced turbulence from Concom management.  That constant has always held true. Last summer the Board of Directors made a decision to transform the SPJA into a professional, results-driven company focused on serving its attendees and the industry. From day one, our course and direction has been to develop and grow the SPJA into viable sustainable fan-oriented organization for years to come and to push harder to meet our mission statement. That position has not and will not change as a result of those who desire to disrupt this formidable and logical strategy. Change and transitions are never easy for profit or non-profit organizations alike. The SPJA's main objective is to bring our fans the best in Anime, Manga and Japanese pop-culture. We do not engage in alleged claims and rumors that have no merit. With that said, we wish those who have resigned the best of luck in their future endeavors and encourage those who are still with us to become more actively involved.

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