The continuing museum saga

7 May

I attended the St. Joseph City Council work session yesterday that was held at the Frederick Avenue location of the St. Joseph Museums Incorporated. As stated in the last blog the museum is asking for an additional $100,000 to make their total contract worth $400,000 and they want it to be ongoing.

The meeting began with Board President, Clark Hampton giving a version of the museum’s history leaving out the Alberto Maloni years, he claimed they won the law suit, and failed to mention that the board in 1985 decided, for unknown reasons, to start a private corporation and begin to transfer money and artifacts into the new corporation.

The museum’s Executive Director, Jackie Lewin confirmed that the museum is in trouble and may lose their AAM accreditation. Lewin said the areas of concern were the number of employees and the museum’s financial future. She also presented the current status of all four museums including the city owned Wyeth Tootle Mansion. She pointed out that the mansion was too small and only ten percent of the square footage that the museum now fills at the Frederick Avenue location. Lewin also shared that the mansion is visited by about ten percent of the visitors visiting the Frederick Avenue location comparatively.

Lewin gave members of the city council records of the expenses to operate the Wyeth Tootle totaling around $180,000 for last year. Those operating expenses were challenged by Council Member, Gary Roach who said, “I don’t understand how the insurance could be that high on the building.” Other members of the council and the city manager pointed out, the city pays the insurance on the building since they own it. Jackie Lewen said that the insurance mentioned in the report was 25 percent of the total insurance for all of the 200,000 plus artifacts in all four museums.

Mr. Roach is on to something. The Wyeth Tootle mansion expenses reported to the city council are not entirely correct. The mansion houses less than one percent of the total artifacts, but in the accounting, the St. Joseph Museums Incorporated places 25 percent of the insurance costs as expenses of the mansion. Other accounting totals such as payroll are arbitrarily divided by four and added to the costs of the mansion. This method of accounting may be endorsed by the corporate board but would fail if the board was supervised by an oversight board that was required by Judge, Randal Jackson in his judgment from the law suit.

The City of St. Joseph did comply with the judge’s order and created the oversight board but they might be in contempt of court because they never set out the duties of the oversight board as directed by the judge. This contempt of court was confirmed by the then Mayor, Ken Shearin who spoke of it often. In spite of his attempts to make it happen the oversight board still has no idea of its duties.

That could be the reason that the oversight board Chairperson, Deedee Squires sang the praises of the corporation and the museum. She spoke during the meeting endorsing the museum and their need for the money. Oversight Board Member, Jerry Reeves commented that he could not oversee the board without a true breakout of expenses for the mansion from the total cost of all four museum operation costs. Squires tried to overcome his statements by restating the corporate boards position. She also reinforced the notion that the information given to the council was correct. Is this oversight or cooperation?

City Manager, Bruce Woody gave me an opportunity to speak. I pointed out that the mansion was carrying its own considering it has 10 percent of the square footage and receiving 10 percent of the visitors, especially when one considers it is closed most of the year. I also agreed with Council Member, Roach that the information given by The St Joseph Museums Incorporated was incorrect. I shared the same concerns that Jerry Reeves mentioned.

Finally I pointed out that the mansion is 10 percent of the square footage and is relatively a small part of the St. Joseph Museums Incorporated, yet the corporate board is asking the city to cover more than 60 percent of the operating budget of all four museums and the private corporation.

It comes down to this. Our museum tax money is being used to support a private corporation, its buildings, its artifacts, its employees and retirement funds, and its many expenses that we the people have no interest in or ownership.

If the corporation didn’t exist, the museum employees became city employees and the artifacts were given back to the people as Mr. Goetz originally gave them to us in 1948, people like me would have to shut up.


One Response to “The continuing museum saga”

  1. Jadis May 7, 2013 at 5:55 pm #

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but I was under the impression that the reason many “public works” projects (see prisons, museums etc) go private is as an effort to save money. If the museum were held by the city, then the city would be responsible for these buildings, artifacts, employees, and retirement funds, in *addition* to financing the layers of red tape that are characteristic of any bureaucratic institution. These expenses you list as a detriment of privatization would not cease to exist if the Saint Joseph Museums were publicly run. You might have to shut up, but no actual problems would be solved.

    On the other hand, it is unacceptable not to have financial accountability for each of the four properties, as Jerry Reeves was getting at. If this information is not being recorded it *should be*. On the other hand, it is completely acceptable for the oversight board to see this information and not share it with the public. That’s the whole point of the board for a private company. If the public suspects corruption, it can vote on an audit. That’s the whole point of audits.

    Though on the subject of accountability, it is my personal opinion that as long as the St. Joseph Museum corporation fails to differentiate its various “businesses,” that is, each of the 4 branches, it is doomed to failure. Every branch tries to tell every story, resulting in a whole lot of repetitious drivel. But that’s another subject. To return to the topic at hand, the public should not be forced to bail out the museum system because it is “too big to fail,” but rather it should be allowed the power to re-elect board members if the present board is incapable of producing satisfactory management. As with any publicly traded company, the board’s job is to align management’s interests with shareholders’ (taxpayers’) interests. However as long as the oversight board has justification for its position enough to stand up to an audit, I believe the Saint Joseph Museum should get its money.

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