Museum declines gift, board members resign

  • Friday, July 25, 2014

A month after the director and assistant director of the Georgetown County Museum unexpectedly resigned, two members of the board of directors have also quit.

Pam Toemmes confirmed she resigned from the board at a special meeting of the board on June 30. She declined to comment further, but suggested the Times ask for the meeting minutes.

“That’s about all I want to say,” she said.

Dick Riley also resigned from the board for “personal reasons,” he said. “It’s nothing horrible. ... My wife and I think a lot of the historical society and the museum.... There’s no drama, I just decided this was the right time.”

Toemmes alluded to a larger issue, though. “There’s a lot going on. I’m glad you’re looking into it,” she said.

Two others connected with the museum made the same observation.

“I’m glad that somebody’s looking into this,” said a museum volunteer who no longer volunteers because of everything that has happened. The former volunteer wished to remain anonymous because of a “pending situation.”

“You know there’s just so many of us that would like to [look into it] but we don’t know how to do it.”

“I appreciate you looking into this,” said a historical society member, who wished to remain anonymous because of their continued membership and involvement with the museum.

A press release from the museum cites a decrease in salary as the reason for the resignation of the former director and assistant director, Jill Santopiertro and Susan Sawyer.

It reads: “During this transitional year, as the Georgetown County Museum adapts to the increased monthly operating expenses at its new building … the Board of Directors of the Historical Society deemed it prudent to eliminate or reduce current Museum expenses wherever possible.

“Unfortunately, this belt-tightening included a proposed temporary reduction in the salaries of the Museum’s two paid staff members. While understandable, their decision to resign … was accepted with deep regret by the Board.”

As documented in the historical society’s 2012 990 tax forms, the director was paid $23,424 annually based on a 40-hour work week. According to the 2011 990 tax forms, the assistant director was paid $7,580 annually, based on a 25-hour work week.

Sawyer said while she did get a raise after the museum moved to its new location, it was minimal and her salary was close to the number reported in the 990.

“Resigned is a funny kind of word to put to that. They were really pushed out,” said the former volunteer.

The member explained, “When the museum realized they had run into a deficit the solution was not ‘let’s start an aggressive funding plan to get into a better position,’ but instead they looked to the museum staff to cut their salaries. To put the onus of the deficit on those two people was not right.

“At that point they had a choice to stay in that environment or to leave, and they chose to leave it,” the member concluded.

Although the museum hired Debby Summey as the interim museum director, Rene King, president of the board of directors, said “it’s been a difficult time” without the staff members.

However, records of the June board meetings show the board had a chance to keep the staff on.

The Times obtained the meeting minutes from the Georgetown County Historical Society through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request. The law states any organization that receives public funds, such as accommodations tax funding, must adhere to the FOIA guidelines. Consequently, any such organization’s board meetings and records, such as meeting minutes, budget, correspondence, etc., are open to the general public. In Fiscal Year 2013-2014, the museum received $4,300 and the historical society, under which the museum operates, received $7,000 from the City of Georgetown accommodations tax fund.

According to the July 19 meeting minutes, Pam Toemmes announced that an “anonymous donor” had offered to pay the salary of the former employees “if they wished to be reinstated.”

“The matter is under advisement,” the minutes say.

At the next meeting, on June 30, Dick Riley made a motion that the board authorize him to “visit an anonymous donor and verify an offer to cover the salaries” of the previous employees.

His visit would have verified the donation had no other restrictions than to pay the salaries through Dec. 31, 2014.

By written ballot, the board voted down the motions, five votes in favor and eight votes against. The minutes do not detail who voted in favor or against.

The member said, “There was a financial supporter, a donor, who was willing to make some additional donations, and if one donor had done that, other donors would have also stepped up. The board voted to refuse those donations.”

The member said the decision to not accept the gift, and the reasons behind it, are why the two board members resigned.

“They have grants, but the rest is just the memberships and gift shop. You can’t run an operation like that on the gift shop, it takes a lot of money to do this,” said the former volunteer.

“We have a lot of supporters, but I don’t know how many we are going to lose. Everyone that I know says that they will not join again.”

The question remains, why did the board of directors refuse the donations?

King would not say.

“Everybody had different opinions on different things. I couldn’t speak with any certainty why it was voted down. There were various concerns from various quarters. ... That was a personal thing and I couldn’t presuppose speaking for others.”

He would not reveal his personal vote either. “The majory has spoken, so I’m enacting that and we’re moving on,” King said.

Board member Jan Lane would not reveal her position on the motion, but did say the decision may have been related to an earlier motion.

In the minutes, preceding Riley’s motion to explore the donation for the salaries, it was announced a “member requested the return of a balance of a donation made in November, 2013.”

Lane said the donor requesting a refund was the same donor offering to pay the salaries.

“Doesn’t sound like a good offer, does it?” she said.

Board member Jim Clark said that was exactly why the motion was voted down.

“The discussion, or my feeling was, they wanted some of it back and then they wanted to give some more, it’s obvious that either they were trying to earmark these funds, or attach strings to it. ... That’s like reaching into the plate at church and getting your dollar back,” he said.

Another board member, who wished to remain anonymous because of a conflict of interest with their professional work, implied they had voted to accept the salary donation, calling it a “wonderfully generous offer” that would have addressed a “specific need.”

The board member said it “surprised me” that the offer was turned down.

Board member Dave Starnes declined to comment. Board member Richard Camlin was absent from the meeting.

The Times was unable to reach other board members.

Conversely, if the board had voted to accept the donation, Santopiertro and Sawyer said they still would not have returned.

“Sure, I would have, given certain other changes to the structure of the board and the way things were run, yes. [But] not without some changes.

“It has to do with the structure of the organization and some folks on the board. ... I was director of the museum, but I wouldn’t have come back unless I was executive director because of what I was dealing with.”

She said she would describe the board as micromanaging her position.

“I’m glad you’re working on this. I think it’s an important thing for folks to understand.”

Sawyer had a similar feeling.

“I don’t think I could have worked with the board that’s left. Had the board changed and the money was there, yes [I would have returned].”

She cited mismanagement of the museum as part of her discomfort with the leadership.

“To me they weren’t going the direction the board needed to be going in,” Sawyer said. “It takes more than [museum membership fees and wholesale book sales] to keep the museum open. And the fundriasing had not been going on to help us do that.

“I just pray that the museum stays open.”

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