Three members of the History Museum of Mobile’s Board of Directors resigned in protest after a meeting Oct. 6, when the board voted to hire an attorney to fight the city for financial information and for the waiving of the facility’s admission fee.
David Smithweck, Wayne Sirmon and Lisa Young each cited a strained relationship between the board and the city as one of the reasons for their resignations.
Young, whose second three-year term ends in December, said she was willing to work with the city on issues, especially since the museum is a city department. She said other members weren’t as amenable.
“I was willing to listen to facts and help the museum achieve what it wanted to achieve,” she said. “It got to the point where people were being disrespectful and I didn’t want to be in a disrespectful situation.”
A total of five of the board’s 21 members have recently resigned because of the board’s increasingly distanced relationship from the city, Chief of Staff Colby Cooper said in an email Oct. 16.
Former Chairman Wayne Sirmon said the relationship between the city and the board has been frosty since a January dispute over fundraising responsibility. More recently, however, the board and city have been at odds over what the board views as the city refusing to allow its trustees to see bank statements and other financial documents, he said.
Sirmon said the city has offered the board electronic copies of the documents, but members have insisted on the originals. The dispute has gotten so bad that during its Oct. 6 meeting, the board hired attorney Clay Rossi of Burns, Cunningham and Mackey, to explore its options.
The hiring of Rossi is what Smithweck said compelled him to resign after the meeting.
“For the first time in 49 years, an adversarial relationship exists between the History Museum of Mobile and its Board of Directors,” he said in a statement. “This was created by the board hiring an attorney and the board’s inability to govern themselves within their own bylaws. The situation, however, will not affect the museum’s function to preserve and present Mobile’s history through magnificent exhibits, such as the Ark of India.”
Rossi wrote a letter to the administration requesting financial records, including “any and all banking statements and checkbook registers.”
In an email Oct. 18, Cooper wrote that the city has done everything it can to cooperate with the board and hand over the financial documents it seeks.
“Prior to this effort, we turned over all checkbooks, bank statements, board minutes, tape recorders, two vehicles, a lawn mower, a storage unit, credit cards, home depot account cards, etc.,” he wrote. “We made a true and good faith effort to create a delineation of assets as we resolved the delineation of function.”
The city has requested the board give them permission to upload the financial system onto one of its computers, in order to comply with the request, Cooper wrote.
“We cannot give the board city property so it’s not as easy as turning over our computer to them,” he wrote. “They have failed at helping themselves regarding this matter. We stand ready to assist.”
In his letter, Rossi argues that according to city ordinance, the board has “full power and authority to control the expenditure of all funds received for the operation” of the museum.
Smithweck, Sirmon and the city see it differently, as the museum has been a city department since 2006. Cooper described the board as “advisory and fundraising in nature.”
Current Board Chairman Greg Reynolds disagrees, citing city code.
“We are not an advisory board,” Reynolds said. “We do have full power as an administrative board.”
Reynolds added that the board has been asking for the financial documents since June and has not received them.
Smithweck said board members are looking at old ordinances from when the museum was an agency of the city and city code has since changed.
“The city owns the facility and everything in it,” Smithweck said. “The board thinks it owns everything in there, but it doesn’t. The board is working off an ordinance from 1963, but it has since been changed.”
Rossi also argued that the board was harmed when Stimpson made the announcement earlier this month that admission to the museum would be free, starting with the Ark of India exhibit. Rossi wrote that the museum generates income through admissions and through memberships, which already make admission free.
“The ‘free admission’ policy is not only injurious to the museum’s operations but the grounds of the mayor’s authority are clouded at best,” Rossi wrote.
Rossi requested city legal staff to provide any documentation that suggests Stimpson has the power to waive admission to the museum.
Cooper said Stimpson does indeed have the authority to make admission free.
“The mayor made an executive decision within his administrative purview to cancel admission fees because, like other great museums across out nation, he wanted to give our citizens and guests a chance to explore our city’s history for free,” Cooper wrote.
Admissions revenue over the last five years has varied from a high of $73,207 in 2009 to a low of $41,436 in 2011. Last year, admissions brought in $54,315.
“The city has not received these funds,” Cooper wrote. “They have been going to the board. We are addressing whether this was permissible, given they do not own the land, the building, nor do they hold a lease.”
Smithweck said the museum makes the bulk of its admissions revenue from memberships and that members won’t be deterred by the city allowing free admission. Sirmon said the numbers presented above also include money made from the use of the city facility. He said admissions alone would be less.
“People don’t get memberships to get into the museum for free,” Smithweck said. “That’s not the primary reason for memberships.”
As a result of the legal action, Cooper has warned city staffers working at the museum from communicating with board members.
In addition to the legal scrape, the resignations also signal a difference of opinion between board members over a proposal to fire six board employees as a cost-saving measure, Young said. In addition, Smithweck said the board was sitting on money it made in the past through performance contracts with the city. He wouldn’t comment on how much money the board had.
Reynolds said he couldn’t comment on the situation with employees, but confirmed the board had an “accumulation of money” from performance contracts from the city. Reynolds said the museum didn’t get a performance contract this year.
The Board of the Friends of the Museum of Mobile announced in a letter Friday to Mayor Sandy Stimpson that because of the strained relationship between the city and the museum board, the friends group would distance itself from the board.
According to the letter, the friends group would no longer take advantage of its seat on the board.
“We, the members of the Board of the Friends, are proud of the museum and its accomplishments, especially in the last several years, as the director and staff have worked tirelessly to make the History Museum of Mobile one of the city’s great treasures,” the letter read. “However, based on the recent discord between the Mobile Museum Board and the museum staff, we feel that we should not, at the present time, attend of participate in the board meetings.”
The letter asked Stimpson and his staff to “urgently address the controversial issues between the board and the staff” before “irreparable damage is done.”
During Tuesday’s City Council meeting, councilors approved Mike Johnson to take Sirmon’s place on the board. Councilman Joel Daves said he tapped Johnson, a banker, for the job because he has the financial experience needed to help resolve the current dispute.
“I deeply regret the resignations, but I think it’s in the best interests of everyone for the issues to be resolved,” Daves said.