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    A Times Editorial

    Beleaguered museum needs city scrutiny

    © St. Petersburg Times
    published June 7, 2002

    What's going on right now at the Safety Harbor Museum of Regional History sounds in some ways like a replay of 1990.

    That year the little museum at 329 Bayshore Boulevard hit the headlines after a new group took control of its board of directors. Within months the facility's director, Valerie Whitford, had resigned, accusing the new directors of excluding her from their circle, holding meetings without notifying her and trying to prevent her from speaking to city officials.

    Board members retaliated, accusing her of mood swings, offensive language, poor bookkeeping and trying to control the museum. At a heated board meeting, the directors stripped her of her title as director.

    The board's image wasn't improved when press reports noted that Whitford had terminal cancer. Whitford supporters responded by withholding donations of money and artifacts.

    Now the little nonprofit museum is in the headlines again. This time it is the museum's executive director, Betty Quibell, who has accused the board president, Carol Bryant, of wrongdoing.

    Quibell claimed that Bryant mishandled museum funds and was nasty to the museum staff. Bryant fired back, bluntly accusing the museum staff of laziness and running deficits. Bryant said the staff was in rebellion against her aggressive approach to raising money for the museum and controlling spending.

    Bryant was subsequently fired by her board of directors -- or at least a portion of it. Seven of the 12 board members came to a scheduled board meeting Tuesday night with a signed resolution firing Bryant. The other five members, including Bryant, didn't know about the resolution before the meeting. Within 90 seconds, the meeting was adjourned and Bryant was out.

    The action was an apparent violation of the board's bylaws, which require that any board member the board wants to remove be notified in writing two weeks prior to the action.

    Members of the Safety Harbor City Commission who attended the meeting Tuesday were surprised by both the quick decision and the board's failure to offer Bryant an opportunity to defend herself.

    City commissioners ought to be concerned. The museum not only houses many valuable city artifacts, it also receives substantial public funding. The city gives the museum $15,000 each year to help cover its expenses, allows it to receive a share of proceeds from city festivals and has bailed it out of previous financial crises with extra donations of thousands of dollars.

    The museum, opened more than 30 years ago, has struggled previously with money problems, occasional lack of professional administration and personality conflicts. Some past board members have treated the museum more as a personal social venue than an important repository of local history that needs serious and responsible overseers.

    Yet the museum has been a labor of love for others who have devoted many hours to making sure the doors stayed open and the museum's interesting collection of American Indian artifacts and historical photos was properly maintained. The museum has relied on city contributions, state grants, museum memberships, admission fees, fundraisers and the free labor of many volunteers to stay afloat.

    Because the facility gets public funds, Safety Harbor commissioners are obligated to make sure that the public's money has been spent appropriately. The current set-to includes allegations of misuse of funds. That's a serious allegation. Commissioners should demand to examine the facility and see financial statements. And if they think there is the possibility of wrongdoing, they must demand an examination of the museum's spending and administration by an outside expert or withdraw public support.

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