News Column

With search for director yet to begin, Anniston tries to untangle museum control

June 29, 2014

By Tim Lockette, The Anniston Star, Ala.

June 29--Three months after the city took control of Anniston's nonprofit museums, there's little movement in the effort to find a replacement for former museum director Cheryl Bragg.

Museum board members say the search can't move forward until Anniston officials work out the role of a city-connected nonprofit that for years has run the Anniston Museum of Natural History, the Berman Museum and Longleaf Botanical Gardens.

"Before you recruit somebody, there's certain information they're going to want to know," said Paula Watkins, a member of and spokeswoman for the Anniston Museum Complex Board. "They'll say 'can we look at your bylaws?' And we don't have them."

For years, the Museum Complex Board essentially ran the city's museums, which are among Anniston's strongest attractions for out-of-town tourists.

The Anniston Museum of Natural History attracts visitors from across the state -- about 60,000 of them per year, according to the Alabama Department of Archives and History. Many of those visitors also take in the Berman, a world history museum with a collection of antique weapons and other artifacts. The city is now developing a botanical garden near both museums.

The natural history museum opened its current building in January 1977; tracing its origin in Anniston back to 1929, the institution has known statewide fame for decades. When Mayor Vaughn Stewart was an undergraduate at the University of Alabama, he said, the museum was one of the first things people would mention when they heard he was from Anniston.

"It's a magical place, for children and adults," he said. "There are very few cities this size with a museum, or museums, like this."

The Museum Complex Board, an 11-member body appointed by the City Council, has historically selected the museum director, who in turn answered to the board.

It was a complex relationship, or seemed to be. The museum board was a nonprofit, but it was a city-owned one. Employees at the Anniston Museum of Natural History were considered city employees. The nearby Berman, which opened in April 1996, was created by a separate foundation, but it still fell under the oversight of the museum board.

That all changed in March this year, when the board approached the Anniston City Council and asked it to make the museums a full-fledged department of city government, with a director who answers directly to City Manager Brian Johnson.

Bragg, who led the museum for 15 years, retired the day after the council approved the change.

"It seems an appropriate time for me to step aside as these changes occur," Bragg said in her resignation letter.

No independence

The change at the Museum Board seemed to happen overnight, but it was years in the making. For decades, the natural history museum and the Berman were supported by a collection of nonprofits -- the Berman Foundation, the MusAnn Corp., the Museum League and the Museum Endowment -- that had emerged over the years as the museums grew.

The Museum Complex Board coordinated those efforts, and it operated with relative independence, like any other nonprofit. Board members now say that's not how it should have been. As a city-owned nonprofit, they say, the board was supposed to have operated under the city's bid laws and other city regulations -- something board members began to realize late last year.

"We found out we had no independence," said Robert Jackson, a member of the board who is also vice president of operations and sales at The Anniston Star.

Just how that came to light isn't exactly clear. Johnson, Anniston's city manager since August, said the issue came up as he tried to familiarize himself with the city's operations.

"It had to do with my coming here and trying to wrap my head around the city's component units," he said.

But that change coincided with a move by Danny McCullars, then the city's finance director, to investigate the finances of the museum complex.

In January, McCullars released a report alleging that Bragg had skirted city rules for paying employees. Among other things, the report claims Bragg gave employees -- including herself -- bonuses without withholding funds that would typically be paid into the state retirement system. McCullars also made a complaint to the Alabama Ethics Commission.

Bragg said various nonprofit boards associated with the museum had long been in the practice of providing employees with a Christmas bonus.

"We learned that a city employee cannot accept a bonus," she said.

Last week, Bragg forwarded to museum board members a letter from the Ethics Commission stating that there was "insufficient evidence" to concluded that ethics laws were violated.

In a memo earlier this year, Johnson, the city manager, ordered McCullars to end his audit. McCullars said he no longer works for the city.

"I did my statutory duty in reporting abuses of power," McCullars said in an electronic message.

Johnson declined comment on the departure of McCullars.

"I will never discuss internal personnel matters, no matter what information is being put out there," he said.

'Not a show-stopper'

Museum board members are quick to point out that the city's move on the museum complex was far from a hostile takeover. And on the topic of a new museum director, the city and taking care to show deference to each other.

"Those decisions will be made by the city manager," Watkins said, when asked what qualities the museum board wants in a new museum director. She said the board will continue in a significant advisory role, but that the city chooses the director now.

"We're not even at the point where we can devote brain cells to the specifics of that," Johnson said. Before the search can even begin, he said, he wants to make sure he has buy-in from all the nonprofit boards that contribute to the museums -- the Berman Foundation, the Museum League and other nonprofits, independent of the city, that are run by volunteers.

"There are people who have lifted up this jewel of the city, and we want to make sure that they're involved in the decision," he said. "I want buy-in, and I will not move forward until I'm sure I have it."

According to Museum Complex Board documents, the museums are expected to bring in about $425,000 in revenue in fiscal 2015. That includes $74,000 from state and county governments, $50,000 in donations and hundreds of thousands in admissions charges, gift shop sales, rentals and other fees.

The museums expect to spend $883,000 in 2015, leaving the city to pick up about $457,000 of the museums' operating costs. That doesn't include the cost of a director, if one is hired -- a position museum board members say is likely to cost about $100,000 per year.

Before the museum became a city department, the museums lined up with other nonprofits to ask the city for money. Johnson said the city typically gave the museums about $600,000 per year.

The museums also have about $1 million on hand. Johnson said that money, much of which is earmarked for museum projects, will stay with the museums.

In announcing her retirement, Bragg said she had originally planned to work at the museum through 2016, when the natural history museum is expected to undergo reaccreditation. Board members say that process will truly begin in early 2015, when the museum expects to start a self-analysis that is the first step of the process.

Johnson said he believes interim director David Ford is doing a good job. He said the prospect of beginning reaccreditation without a permanent director doesn't bother him.

"I won't sit here and say that having a permanent director wouldn't be better, but it's not a show-stopper," he said.

Capitol and statewide reporter Tim Lockette: 256-294-4193. On Twitter: @TLockette_Star.

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(c)2014 The Anniston Star (Anniston, Ala.)

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Source: Anniston Star (AL)