The city of Palestine has changed the locks on the historic Reagan Building, home of the Museum of East Texas Culture, after meeting with members of the board and spelling out their terms to move forward in a lessor/lessee relationship.
“The building is closed and no activities will be taking place at the Reagan Building,” said Teresa Herrera, Palestine city manager. “We want to work with Museum of East Texas Culture, but they need to figure out who the board is.”
Hererra explained that per the museum's bylaws, that even though four of their members voted to keep the museum closed for now, they did not resign.
“They are still acting board members,” Herrera said. So this new board they’ve created is against their bylaws.”
“The city is not trying to take sides,” said Gary Saunders, city attorney. “But with members of both sides having keys to the building, we’re not really sure who should have access.”
Herrera said that until earlier this year, the city did not even have a key to the building, which they own. After receiving the key, they always let someone know when they would be entering the building for maintenance purposes.
“You may have noticed the current council and city manager are trying not to be the absentee landlord anymore,” Saunders said.
“We are in favor of them reopening the museum, there are just steps that must be taken first in order to proceed,” Herrera said.
Saunders said members of the museum provided the city with a copy of the board’s bylaws and based on those bylaws, the proper procedure was not followed to elect a new board.
The confusion in the community and for the city and the council began after Charles Steen made several accusations on social media and then shared new developments about the museum with the Palestine City Council during is meeting on Sept. 13.
Steen, a past president of the museum, and a current board member, informed the council that on Sept. 1, Bonnie Woolverton, the former president, made a motion by email to permanently close the museum including dispensing items and storing locally what they could at the Anderson County Historical Society’s office.
Steen said four of the board members – Woolverton, Ben Campbell, Martin Lawrence and Gary Williams, voted in favor of closing the museum and he took these votes as their voluntary resignation from the board. Board members Steen and Garland Cotton voted to remain open and Bela Hafner did not vote. According to Steen, the board members who voted to close basically abolished their position by implying resignations and he was accepting their resignations and a new board of directors would be formed.
Steen called a museum meeting on Tuesday, Sept. 14 to establish new officers for the board. The new board of directors for the museum are Charles Steen, president, Garland Cotton, vice-president, Joy Phillips, secretary/treasurer and board members Stuart Whitaker, Calvin Nichols, Dan Dyer and Bela Hafner. Dyer was hired to continue in his previous position as museum director with Calvin Nicholson as curator.
On Monday, Sept. 4, the city, in a letter to inform all persons involved with or interested in the use of the Reagan Building by the Museum for East Texas Culture, lined out its stance on the property and what their role will be moving forward.
The letter states that after the newspaper article, in the Herald-Press, that since the museum improperly deposed a majority of its board with a new board, the city is forced to take action to determine which group or persons can speak with the authority of the museum in order to reopen it.
The letter spells out that the Reagan Building is owned by the city of Palestine and there is no lease or current authority granted by the city.
The building is not currently in compliance with federal law, the American with Disabilities Act, which requires there be a reasonable and achievable compliance plan in place by the owner and any lessee before it can be opened to the public. The city states there must be a lease and accompanying ADA Compliance Plan in place before any activity involving the public accessing the Reagan Building can occur.
The letter further reports that the city recently obtained preliminary information suggesting that the estimated cost of bringing the Reagan Building into ADA compliance would be around $10 million and there are not city funds through the budget or any other bond or borrowing program available at this time.
The city explained that before there could be a lease between the city and museum that would permit the opening to the public, the museum would be required to discuss and agree with the city how the building could be brought into compliance with the ADA using funds provided by the museum. The museum would need to provide financial information verifying needed funds were reasonably available.
The city is using the “Bylaws of the Museum for East Texas Culture” dated May 10, 2018. The bylaws provide a specific process for the creation of the board. According to the city attorney, this process was not honored in recent action including the acceptance of the resignation of board members who had not officially resigned.
According to the bylaws, three board members could not depose the majority other four members. And based on this, all future contact and discussions regarding the handling of museum property that is currently located in the city-owned Reagan Building would require the consent of at least a majority of the current seven member board, not one board spokesperson or even the two museum staff persons who had been handling past contact with the city.
Due to the continuing disagreement among board members, resulting in the city receiving contradicting information and requests, the city attorney recommended Hererra and the city council contact the previousseven-member board to determine if there was an official majority of at least four board members who would be authorized to speak on behalf of the museum.
In the meantime, it was also recommended by the city attorney that the city notify all of the museum board, as well as their staff, to return any keys to the building to the city.
The city has changed all the locks on the building and the security service was notified that all future contact will be handled by the city.