Feb. 20--The City Council was right Tuesday to push for greater accountability from the International Civil Rights Center & Museum and city staff.
Museum leaders agreed to provide more information about the facility's financial obligations before the city pays the final half of a $1.5 million loan promised last year. And the council adopted a rule that contracts must be signed before funds are disbursed. Incredibly, that was not the case when the city released the first $750,000 to the museum. The payment was approved by then-City Manager Denise Turner Roth on the recommendation of City Attorney Mujeeb Shah-Khan, and over the objection of Finance Director Rick Lusk. Council members, for whom Shah-Khan works, didn't know the contract wasn't signed. That shouldn't happen again.
That was one of several odd occurrences recently coming to light. Another was last month's selection of Deena Hayes-Greene as chairwoman of the museum's board of directors. The news was disclosed Monday. Yet, she didn't join fellow board members Doug Harris and George Clopton, the former chairman, when they met with the council Tuesday for a status report.
The status is precarious. It's clear from documents the museum presented Tuesday that the $1.5 million from the city is vital. It is making debt payments and will be used to hire additional staff, including a development director tasked with fundraising. Without the city money, closing the museum's doors would loom as a grim possibility.
There was some positive news Tuesday: The museum will allow self-guided tours by April 1, finally eliminating the requirement that visitors wait until a group of 25 assembles for a guided tour. This was an unnecessary and customer-unfriendly policy. Leaders will consider changing the museum's name to incorporate Greensboro. (We like Greensboro Sit-ins Museum because it says exactly what it is and where it is.) And the museum revealed a revised "Sustainability Plan: 2014-16."
It's important for the museum to outline a path forward as part of a commitment to become more open and accountable. Harris also promised to disclose staff salaries and other financial information not included in previously released audits. The board also ought to open its own meetings to the public.
The sustainability plan itself is ambitious but, as in the past, perhaps overly dependent on school groups. For example, it aims to raise more than $1 million in sponsorships by 2016 to cover some of the costs of bringing in 112,000 students annually for an education initiative called "Building a Better America." It envisions establishing a new gallery called "Jesse Jackson: An Emerging Voice in 1963 America," for which naming rights would be sold. This project would bring in $3 million, and "Rev. Jackson will identify the funding sources." Will he? Then there's a proposed Center for the Study of Racism and Contemporary Civil Rights Issues focusing on topics such as immigration, marriage equality, affordable health care, medical marijuana and gun control. Those issues might generate interest, but too much political controversy could jeopardize fragile public support locally.
This museum must plant its feet on the ground. It already offers displays worth seeing in a powerful, historically significant setting. It has a compelling story to tell but so far has not told it well. It's time to focus on its message, operate with transparency and persuade Greensboro to embrace and support it.
The City Council should continue to use its financial leverage to assure accountability.
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