ROCK HALL — The mayor and council voted 4-1 to direct the town’s museum board to privatize and become a 501c3 nonprofit.
Mayor Dawn Jacobs, liaison to the museum board, cast the lone dissenting vote at the council’s Dec. 8 meeting.
The motion came after the council decided to sell the municipal building, located at 5585 Main St. in Rock Hall, and buy a new town hall property.
The museum artifacts are all that remain in the municipal building — aside from some office supplies and furniture — which has been closed since 2020.
There have previously been separate discussions among the council and the museum board about transitioning the board into a 501c3.
“There’s a push to go 501c3, there’s a push to have a certain level of funding dedicated to the museum, I feel like I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this, talking to people, and trying to get a best solution,” Councilman James Cook said ahead of making the motion. “This is another one of these issues that has been around for a long time (and) doesn’t have a clear cut solution. The museum board is getting frustrated, we’re getting frustrated (and) the community is getting frustrated.”
Cook said he came up with a plan that “gets us moving and solves a lot of the challenges that we currently are facing with the museum board.”
“I think the heritage of the town is very important,” he said. “I think the town has a responsibility to take care of that collection, both morally and financially. I think we owe the museum board gratitude and I think we owe them the leeway to do what they need to do.”
Cook’s proposal for the privatization of the museum board was based partly on comments made by board Chairman Tot Strong regarding the costs associated with moving the museum artifacts out of the municipal building. Cook said that by becoming a 501c3, that nonprofit could acquire insurance and sign the town’s waivers allowing those folks into the building without the town being held liable.
“I’ve got bullet points here about all the things that are in this plan to … create a private organization for the Rock Hall museum, give them some kind of funding so they can execute what they need to do, and remove the strings that we have on them as a municipal body,” Cook said.
As part of the motion, the council approved giving the private organization $47,985. Those funds were calculated based on the $4,548 currently in the museum board’s checking account; $23,500 initially budgeted for municipal building expenses that were previously re-allocated toward the museum; and $19,436 of the insurance proceeds.
The council and nonprofit would also create a memorandum of understanding to establish a relationship between the two bodies; material transfer agreements will be executed to catalogue and transfer the artifacts.
The nonprofit would also have the ability to request additional funds from the mayor and council annually during the budget season — a practice currently held by the Rock Hall Volunteer Fire Company and Rock Hall Business Association.
During initial discussion Dec. 8, Jacobs said Cook’s plan assumes that the museum board will become the 501c3, “and that’s not necessarily what will play out.”
She said the nonprofit needs to be a grassroots organization that may or may not include folks that are current members of the museum board.
“There’s some problems with government officials still having a significant role in the 501c3,” Jacobs said.
Another concern she had was the council providing enough money to the nonprofit.
“I’m just reluctant,” Jacobs said. “I like the idea of talking about this and talking about it with the group that might become the 501c3, but there’s nothing to force a 501c3 to exist.”
Councilwoman Eleanor Collyer said a nonprofit may have more avenues for fundraising.
Cook said he was just trying to provide a “reasonable incentive.”
“I think they’re hampered by being part of the town,” he said. “I think it’s a disservice to the museum board, the museum collection. I think we spend way too much time on it. I think we need to find a reasonable way to separate those two things out so both of us can do what we need to do.”
He added that he wants to see the museum bring tourism and clean the collection and put it where it needs to go, but that’s not getting done under the council’s supervision.
“We can’t take responsibility for that collection anymore, it’s not being seen,” Collyer said.
Councilman Tim Edwards said the council had too much going on and can’t supply the museum board with what it needs or fund those needs.
Cook amended his motion to include a timeline, adding to the motion that the council would like the museum board to tell them whether it was a plan they’d like to move forward with by the council’s next business meeting, Jan. 12, 2023. He said knowing the museum board’s intention would give the council time to come up with another plan if it needs to.
Following the approval, Cook presented his plan to the museum board at its Dec. 12 meeting.
At that meeting, there was some discussion about whether the town could gift the nonprofit all of that $47,985 because some of it may be tied up in grant funds.
Jacobs said that the 501c3 would have to be a separate, standalone organization that would be put together and then would approach the town about taking over operating the museum. She said it would also need to put together a financial plan and find out the cost of insurance.
Another board member said that now those interested in forming a 501c3 had an outline regarding support from the town.
“Correct me if I’m wrong, but this proposal from the town council, isn’t this essentially what we’ve been asking for this whole time?” museum board member Cathy Bramble said.
“That was my intent when I drafted this up,” Cook said. “That’s why I came to the meeting before (and) listened to concerns.”
Another concern for board members was the condition of the artifacts and whether the town would cover cleaning and restoration costs since the artifacts were damaged while they belonged to the town.
“My concern is if there isn’t action taken, (the artifacts are) going to continue to sit there and they’re going to continue to deteriorate,” Cook said.
There were also concerns about whether the members of the museum board interested in starting a 501c3 could meet outside of a public forum to discuss its possible formation, or if they would be subjected to the Open Meetings Act if there were enough of them to constitute a quorum.
Town Manager Bob Resele and Cook said the board could host a closed session meeting if they were discussing a contract. That meeting would be recorded, but not streamed or archived.
Strong said he was not going to get behind anything unless he knew who was interested in establishing a 501c3 and saw a five-year plan to show that the money provided by the town would keep it afloat for that duration.