In years past, the Pioneer Florida Museum's festival on Labor Day weekend was one of the best opportunities for last-minute politicking in east Pasco with candidates for public office glad-handing and distributing literature to the sun-soaked crowds on the eve of the primary election.
This year, Pasco County Commission candidate John Nicolette didn't wait until September to use the museum as a backdrop for his campaign. Nicolette, a rancher, developer and Tampa firefighter, paid the $100 vendor fee and then hung his political signs on museum exhibits — retired fire trucks displayed during a recent fundraising quilt show.
It is one thing to pay your festival admission fee and hand out campaign fliers; it is quite another to use museum equipment for the campaign, potentially creating the false illusion the museum endorsed an individual candidate.
That so few questioned the propriety of Nicolette's signs is indicative of the museum's current status: chummy. Nicolette sits on the museum's board of directors, as do his wife's parents, recently retired County Attorney Robert Sumner and his wife, Marlene, and their son and daughter-in-law, Keith and Sharon Sumner. Also on the board is a former business associate Nicolette recruited, Dominic Iafrate, whose proposal to build a 1,000-acre landfill southeast of Dade City is the source of much controversy in east Pasco.
As Times staff writer Lisa Buie reported, the close ties among the museum's board members is now its own controversy. Circuit Judge Lynn Tepper resigned in August, writing to the board that it shouldn't be run like a club or group of friends or family members. One person quit as an officer, saying a 2004 decision to dip into the endowment fund for a capital project was improper, and another stepped down as treasurer when the board gave more fiscal responsibility to its only full-time staffer and asked the treasurer to provide oversight.
Clearly, there needs to be oversight of another sort. The board had been prepared to move its $48,000 operating account to First National Bank of Pasco, where Robert Sumner is president of the bank's holding company. Sumner made the motion to transfer the fund. It was seconded by his son and approved by the board.
Last week, Sumner, after talking to the Times, asked the board to reverse that vote because of the appearance of impropriety. Smart move. The board would be wise to solicit proposals from area banks to see which will offer the best deal to the nonprofit museum. If it remains First National Bank of Pasco, so be it.
The museum, a charming cluster of old Florida buildings on 20 acres of land just north of the Dade City limits, is a genuine source of civic pride. It should be. Its preservation efforts are unparalleled elsewhere in the county. Sumner suggests the museum's long-term health is tied to a takeover by the county or state.
Budget-cutting mandates from Amendment 1 make that unlikely to happen anytime soon, and tourist development money is targeted traditionally for capital projects and advertising, not operating subsidies.
The inner turmoil at the museum is indicative of similar dilemmas facing many a civic group, nonprofit agency and youth sports league. Too often, multiple fundraising and administrative tasks fall to the same key group of hardworking volunteers who could benefit from the energy and ideas that new members can bring.
Preferably, new members who are independent-minded and unrelated to, or absent business ties with, the existing board.