The evening typically begins with dinner. Sometimes it's barbecue. Other times it's chicken and potato salad. Once it was "Yankee lasagna" cooked by a Pennsylvania member. ¶ Sometimes the minutes of these meetings list the menu. Other times they just say "Dinner was delicious" and thank the cook or donor. ¶ These monthly gatherings of the Pioneer Florida Museum and Village trustees drip with gentility as sweet as the cane syrup sold in the gift shop. ¶ Members, mostly old-timers with roots reaching back to original Pasco families, are referred to by first names, with birthdays and hospitalizations noted in the minutes, along with reminders to keep them in prayer. Meetings are down-home affairs dominated by such routine items as buying a lawn tractor or a mule to turn the sugar cane grinding mill or soliciting volunteers for the quilt show.
But April 5, 2004, was a different story. That night, the trustees voted unanimously to dip into the museum's $300,000 endowment fund to pay about $60,000 for an addition to a barn named for a longtime board president. In the nearly four years that followed, disagreements about whether the money was borrowed, as well as other board actions, have led to hurt feelings, accusations of fiscal irresponsibility, political maneuvering and nepotism. A certified public accountant, a member of a prominent ranching family and a veteran circuit judge all have resigned either as trustees or officers.
"The board operates more loosely than any of the many boards on which I have served and those I have chaired over the years," were among the parting words in Circuit Judge Lynn Tepper's Aug. 3 resignation letter. "Make no mistake: I think the board members are a hard working group of individuals. However, that is not an excuse for business to be conducted as if it were some club or group of friends or family members. It is a shame that the board makeup does not reflect the demographics of our community. It is difficult to have an independent board when so many members are related."
Despite the bitterness, all the members agree on one thing: They love this museum. But the bickering threatens to tear apart a group so dedicated to preservation.
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The Pioneer Florida Museum has been a part of Ray Battle's life since its inception in 1961. Emily Larkin, a member of the prominent ranching family and donor of most of the 20 acres the museum occupies, was married to Battle's cousin, Bill Larkin. But she considered Battle her nephew, and he always called her "Aunt Emily." He helped take care of her until she died in 1988.
He considers the museum, a series of buildings set among the rolling hills under the moss-draped oaks, her legacy to the county. He calls it a "jewel" and talks about it almost as if it were a child. Over the years he has performed maintenance work and volunteered at special events. He takes pride in the fact that it affords schoolchildren a chance to tour and learn about their heritage.
Battle voted with the others that night to take the money from the endowment fund to expand the barn. But he said he based his vote on the understanding that it was a loan.
Former trustee Louie Holt said, "Some older members felt like it was a loan," but added he can't recall anything in writing saying the money had to be replaced. The money was not put back in the endowment fund.
The handling of the endowment is the chief reason Battle resigned as vice president. He lists other concerns, especially changes that gave more financial responsibility to the director, who is the museum's sole full-time staffer, and relegated the treasurer to an oversight role. (That move also prompted the resignation of treasurer Robert Owens, a certified public accountant.) After Owens left, Battle said, financial information he received was spotty compared with earlier years. That prompted him to give up the chairmanship of the museum's budget and finance committee, though he remains as a trustee.
"I have come to the conclusion that I do not agree with the current operating standards and methods," he wrote in a July 29 letter.
Web of connections
Battle blames Robert Sumner, Pasco's recently retired county attorney and the museum's immediate past president. (He recently turned the president's job over to Circuit Judge Linda Babb, who before that served as secretary.)
Battle recruited Sumner to the board and supported him as president, but later said he didn't give museum decisions proper attention.
"Maybe he was too busy being county attorney," he said. He added that bylaw changes were given to the membership to study on the same day a vote was to be taken.
Battle, like Tepper, also is concerned that so many board members are related. Sumner has four relatives on the board: his wife, Marlene, his son, Keith, his daughter-in-law, Sharon, and his son-in-law, John Nicolette, who is a candidate for the Pasco County Commission seat held by Ted Schrader.
Last year, Nicolette brought Dominic Iafrate onto the museum board. He is vice president of Angelo's Aggregate Materials, which is proposing a controversial landfill near Dade City. Angelo's has donated $10,000 to the museum. (Other related museum board members are Lela Futch and her daughter, Suzanne, and brothers Wilbur and Robert Dew.)
At the recent quilt show, Nicolette stripped a large campaign banner across a museum fire truck. This worried Battle. Granted, the museum has traditionally allowed politicians to attend events and hand out brochures, he said, but a large sign on a piece of museum equipment might be misinterpreted.
"I didn't think that looked good," he said. "What if Ted Schrader wins and we have to go and ask the county for something?"
Schrader also has ties to the museum. His father, Art, was the personal representative for the estate of Rudolph Rhode, who with his sister, Annie, donated the 37 pieces of farm equipment that helped start the project.
Museum director Christine Smith said all elected officials received information and an opportunity to buy sponsorships. Nicolette, who also bought a sponsorship at an earlier greased pig contest, was the only one who responded. Receipts show he paid $100 for a booth and the right to put banners in various locations.
Sumner said he didn't know anything about his son-in-law's plan to advertise. "It was between him and the museum," he said. While perfectly legitimate, he could see where the banner might have given some people the wrong impression.
Battle also expressed concern over a recent vote to move the museum's checking accounts from Wachovia to First National Bank of Pasco. Sumner is president of Florida Bancshares Inc., the holding company that owns the bank. According to meeting minutes, Sumner moved to transfer the money, about $48,000, with a second from his son. However, after the St. Petersburg Times' inquiry, he asked the board Tuesday to leave the accounts alone. The endowment fund, which as of Jan. 31 had $227,000, is kept separately at another institution.
"In talking to (the Times), I thought there might be feelings that it might convey the appearance of impropriety because of my relationship with the bank," Sumner said.
Battle said he has considered leaving the board but he feels like he needs to stay to provide oversight and make sure Aunt Emily's dream doesn't die.
"I've been there since my 20s," said Battle, now 64. "It's been a part of me." But "with what I've seen in the last two years I'd be hesitant to write them a check or give them an artifact."
Like Battle, Sumner cites deep historic ties to the county and museum. His great-great-grandfather, Robert Lawton Sumner, came to Pasco in 1885 from east-central Georgia. He helped build the little white Enterprise Church that sits on the museum grounds.
Bob Sumner's association with the museum began in the 1960s when he was a young lawyer. His partner was an attorney for the Rhode estate. Rhode had a barn full of old plows from the late 1800s and wanted them publicly displayed.
Pasco County Fair officials stored the equipment and the museum was born. Sumner helped draw up the articles of incorporation.
After Emily Larkin donated the property in 1975, Sumner was asked to head fundraising efforts for a building. The campaign raised more than $50,000. The board made Sumner an honorary member with voting privileges but he wasn't particularly active except when the museum needed to raise more money.
Sumner describes fundraising back then as informal. Prominent families would figuratively "pass the hat" for the museum's upkeep. Trustees would take turns volunteering as docents on Sundays. But those things went by the wayside as the county grew and the old-timers' ranks thinned.
Sumner said his wife got on the board about a decade ago. She has glaucoma, so Sumner drove her to the meetings. Four or five years ago, he said, the board asked him to serve as president.
"It's difficult to get young people involved," he said. He said he recruited his son and daughter-in-law not to pack the board, but so he and his wife could eventually retire. Nicolette, he said, ended up on the board because he had successfully raised money for the organization. He did that, Sumner said, as a favor to his mother-in-law.
As for the decision to spend part of the endowment, Sumner said the rules drawn up when the endowment was created in 2000 don't require money to be repaid. He said the fund was started with a $40,000 bequest from the estate of Dade City teacher Albert Smith, along with other donations.
"None of those funds were restricted," he said.
Tepper disagreed with that assumption.
"There is no authority to simply liquidate (the endowment fund)," she wrote in her letter. Tepper declined to be interviewed for this story.
Sumner also said he moved to transfer the museum's accounts to First National because Wachovia was charging monthly fees. First National waives fees for nonprofit groups. First National also has donated more to the museum over the years.
"You'd think you'd want to help businesses that help the museum," he said. However, he said treasurer Bill Gregg will work with Wachovia to see how the fees can be avoided.
As for the bylaw changes that gave the director more financial responsibility and put the treasurer in an auditing role, Sumner said the previous method put too much in the hands of the treasurer alone.
A 2006 internal review by the audit committee cited a lack of internal controls and problems deciphering treasurer Robert Owens' records, though they noted that the records and statements "fairly represented" the museum's assets, revenues and expenditures. The committee noted the absence of purchase orders to authorize expenditures and invoices that lacked signatures verifying goods were received or services rendered. "On some occasions, payments were made without written bills, statements or invoices," it said.
The situation posed a "potential problem" if the museum received a state grant of more than $300,000 or a federal grant for more than $25,000. "It is unlikely that an outside auditor would find that the museum's accounting complies with general accepted standards required by government or possibly some private funding agencies," committee chairman Louie Holt wrote.
"I was an accounting major, and I couldn't understand his books," Sumner said recently.
Three months after the audit report, Owens resigned as treasurer and registered agent. He sent a letter that said the proposed bylaws changes would make treasurer "a very dangerous title to hold" because the new roles "are at such divergence from the very meaning of the name and what is generally accepted in the business world as that individual's duties, responsibility and authority."
Owens also wrote that because he was a certified public accountant, any auditing he did would have to conform to stricter rules and be too time-consuming.
Owens did not return phone calls from the St. Petersburg Times, but his resignation letter noted that the audit covered only through 2004. He wrote that he would hold on to the original records covering the rest of his tenure until an audit of those years could be performed "for my own regulatory concerns."
Sumner said Gregg has requested the records but Owens has not turned them over. Gregg's position is that the records belong to the museum, not Owens. The board voted Tuesday to give Owens 10 days to surrender the records.
Battle said he never had a problem with the job Owens did. "I felt comfortable with him in charge," he said.
Sumner said an external audit will have to be done this year anyway if the museum receives a $356,000 state grant to complete the rebuilding of the 1910 Blanton Packing House. Trustees expect to learn whether the museum will get the grant during the upcoming legislative session.
Talk of a takeover
The museum has budgeted revenues of $194,095 this year, with expected expenses of $187,480. That leaves a small surplus of $6,615.
Sumner said given the slim profit margin, putting a priority on repaying the endowment fund could force the board to close the museum.
"What do you do?" he said.
That's the last thing anyone associated with the museum wants to happen.
Sumner says the county or state should take over if the museum is to survive.
"It's not a question of if, but when," he said.
"It might be better if they did," he said, adding that the days of "knocking on doors and calling on business" for donations has passed.
Scott Black, a Dade City commissioner who served as a museum trustee for 10 years, said he's heard about rumblings among his former board members but chalked it up to "strong personalities."
"When you have such a large group of people, it's just human nature," he said.
Black, whose grandfather worked as a section foreman at the Trilby Depot, said the museum will hold a special spot in his heart for preserving the depot on its grounds.
"I would be happy if people could get together and keep it going," he said. "It's a great jewel."
Lisa Buie can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 909-4604.