I have posted a few times about the Gulfport (Florida) History Museum. If you live in the area, you can attend the city council meeting. If you don’t live in the area, I included the e-mail contact information for the Mayor and City Council members below.
I am not a member of the Gulfport History Museum although I did buy a T-shirt to support their efforts to recover from the fire – Gulfport (Florida) Historical Museum/Society Labor Day 2018 Fire. I think it’s a good move the Museum is looking at options since it sounds like they may need to find a new place if the council stands firm on their decision.
I agree the decision to include political appointees to any nonprofit board opens up a can of worms that could cause nonprofits an undue financial burden as mentioned in the response to the Mayor below. There are numerous laws already in place at different government levels to address the concerns that led the City Council in choosing to go this route.
I received this e-mail bit over an hour ago.
A message about possible closure of the Gulfport History Museum
No, this isn’t a fundraising email.
Bottom line: We need you to support us at the August 6 city council meeting, because if we don’t agree to accept a board member chosen by Gulfport city council, Gulfport city council could evict us in three months.
The Gulfport Historical Society is in real danger of losing its lease for the Gulfport History Museum, and we need your help. We’ve tried to contact everyone on city council and ask them to stop this, but we don’t know what council intends to do Tuesday night.
In May, we heard the Gulfport mayor wanted city council to place a board member on every nonprofit leasing city space, including the Gulfport Historical Society, so we asked our president to meet with him, and on June 5 he told her this was true. He assured us this request was impacting GHS but was not because of anything we had done, but rather because of complaints about two other nonprofits leasing city space.
We told the mayor we would not agree to a city-placed board member and reinforced that in a letter on June 14. GHS remains a private nonprofit organization, not a city-run one. For three decades, city management and staff has treated GHS well, and rather than appear intractable, our executive board offered the mayor alternatives to a city-placed board member, alternatives compliant nonprofits already must adhere to to meet state and federal laws. Staff could easily implement all of these without additional cost or manpower at lease renewal time. In addition, we already have a liaison with the city from the board of directors: our president. We’d happily offer status reports to the city if they’d ask. Our board meetings are open to the public and anyone may attend and speak.
Nevertheless, on July 26, city staff asked our operations manager for the GHS bylaws and asked how often the board met. Some members have brought us concerns that certain council members have reinforced the need to “control” what the nonprofits are doing.
We feel strongly that city government cannot and should not insert itself into the business of a private nonprofit.
Our mission reads “the Gulfport Historical Society preserves and celebrates Gulfport culture and history through exhibits and programs that educate and inspire the community and visiting public.” We do that, with the assistance of our members, community stakeholders and volunteers. Over the last two months (since we reopened after last year’s fire), we’ve rebuilt our volunteer group, created three new exhibits you can see throughout the city, and strengthened our support in the business community. You’ve told us you like what we’re doing and where we’re headed.
We appreciate the city’s generosity with our lease, and since the late 1980s, the Gulfport Historical Society has treated our relationship with city government as a community partnership. But unilateral action without discussion isn’t a partnership.
Suggesting a board that volunteers its time, talent and money (each of us each raise or donate a minimum of $500 each year to the Society) is guilty of wrongdoing is an insult to the board and our Society. We are confused, upset and heartbroken that our city council is painting the Gulfport Historical Society with the broad brush of inappropriate conduct and financial malfeasance.
We find it similarly devastating that we’re sending this email, which we know could put us at odds with city council and staff, and nothing is further from what we want. By the same token, you trust us to do what’s best for Gulfport history, and to preserve and protect Gulfport history, for current and future residents. A public trust is a sacred one, one we are unwilling to break. You come first with us.
If council votes to allow this Tuesday night, and if we refuse, the city can cancel our lease. Although our lease runs through 2022, it also says the city can cancel our lease for no reason with 90 days notice.
While our community desperately needs a history museum and historical society, we do not need that same society to be bullied by elected officials.
Strong words, but that’s what could happen. As a nonprofit and a charity, we must meet federal and state laws and standards about how we fundraise and how we report our activities. Our treasurer, who we often refer to (lovingly) as a “procedural pain the butt,” does an excellent job of keeping us in compliance.
Because we are a 501c3, we cannot lobby. We can, however, advocate for ourselves.
And that’s precisely what we’re doing Tuesday night. We’re asking you to join us.
Many of the board members will attend the Tuesday, August 6 city council meeting at 7 p.m. and speak on behalf of the Society at the meeting. City council meets at 2401 53rd Street South. Afterwards, we welcome our supporters to join us at the Gulfport History Museum for light snacks and refreshments (paid for with personal funds rather than Society money.) We’d love to see those of you who support the Gulfport Historical Society and its mission, whether you’re a member or not, at city council and the gathering afterwards (of course, we’d love for you to become a member, too.)
If you can’t attend the meeting but agree city council cannot force a board member onto a private charity, please email city council: Mayor Sam Henderson, Ward 1 representative Dan Liedtke, Ward 2 representative Chris Brown, Ward 3 representative Paul Ray and Ward 4 representative Michael Fridovich. If we fail Tuesday night, rest assured we will find a new home for the Gulfport History Museum.
One final word — please do not see this as taking sides. Council’s doing the best they can, but they’re teetering on the edge of making an ill-informed decision, and we hope we can convince them it isn’t in our community’s best interest. Agreeing with us doesn’t mean you’re on our “side” — it simply means you believe in our organization, our community, and our community’s history. We are on the side of history, and of our community. We’re confident that with your help, our elected officials will understand that by the time the city council meeting adjourns Tuesday night.
Yours in Gulfport,
The board of directors of the Gulfport Historical Society.
Thanks for meeting with our president. She confirmed what we had heard was true: It is your desire that city council be able to place a political appointee on the executive board of any nonprofit renting municipal space. Before this discussion continues with the rest of Council, we’d like to offer some insight.
The Gulfport Historical Society is immensely grateful for the city’s generosity with our lease. It has, no doubt, allowed us to use our resources to collect and preserve the city’s history. We, most of all, understand the value of what the city affords certain nonprofit organizations in terms of leases and use agreements. Our lease has allowed us, too, to support the city with our efforts and we’ve always believed the City of Gulfport and the Gulfport Historical Society have shared goals with the Society’s work and mission.
As our president indicated to you, before meeting with you, the executive board had discussed this possibility informally and brought the possibility to the attention of the board of directors. We’d like to make our position crystal clear: this is not in the best interest of the Gulfport Historical Society and we believe it would be a detriment to our mission.
Our reasons for this are as follows:
- Our quarterly board meetings are open to the public already, and we maintain provisions for how the public may address the board on our website.
- We are not a working board; we are a development and networking board. As such, every board member commits to raising $500 annually, with that amount to increase. This would make the council appointment attainable only to members of the city who are able to contribute at the level as the rest of the board, making this appointment exclusionary to some of our community.
- Having a council designee on our board could cause Sunshine Law and open government issues. GHS is not prepared to pay to have an attorney present to make sure those laws are followed.
- This would require a change to our constitution and bylaws, which requires approval of the membership.
- Appointing one person to an executive board will not give the city any more control over any nonprofit, because the majority of the executive board will still have control. It could, however, create tension and conflict and undermine our mission.
With all that stated, our executive board met pursuant to our president’s meeting with you, and we unanimously agree that any private corporation (for-profit or nonprofit) paying less than market rate to rent municipal property should adhere to uniform standards. We also support the city providing for tangible consequences when an organization fails to meet any of those standards.
We also believe creating rules for nonprofits without careful consideration of input from those who have served on nonprofits — inside of Gulfport and out — will lead to unintended consequences and can be of severe detriment not only to those nonprofits, but also the city of Gulfport and the community both jointly serve.
Nonprofits located in Gulfport and using Gulfport facilities might have missions related to the Gulfport community, but aren’t explicitly about the development or benefit of Gulfport, so it doesn’t really make sense to have city officials or designees on the board. We are a bit of an exception in that regard (our mission is definitely Gulfport-specific) but this argument seems stronger for other nonprofits that might be affected by this new policy. Say it’s an arts-oriented organization that uses the Gulfport Arts Center for classes: What input, besides that pertaining to facility use, should the City have on that organization’s board (and shouldn’t the lease or use agreement cover that already)? Aren’t there better ways than simply adding a board seat to provide that input?
Because our board of directors has experience sitting on nonprofit boards, both inside and outside Gulfport, we have some thoughts for how the city can ensure the organizations enjoying the benefits of less-than-market rent best serve the community. The city could make such standards part of every nonprofit organization lease and/or use agreement. Please consider the suggestions listed below as jumping off points for a discussion on how to ensure leases and use agreements for city-owned property maintain the public trust and hold the lessees accountable. Some measurable and cost-effective standards include:
- Providing standard financial reports to the city at the end of the organization’s fiscal year. These reports should include an income statement and a balance sheet.
- Make an annual report with facility usage statistics to city council at a publicly noticed meeting.
- Providing the city with a certificate of insurance annually.
- The law stipulates that executive board members of nonprofit organizations cannot have a member who has committed a crime against the public, so the nonprofit should provide to the city council proof that they have conducted background checks on each member of their executive board.
- The nonprofit must agree to follow all local, state and federal laws.
- Nonprofits that solicit donations must register with the Florida Department of Consumer Services; each nonprofit should provide a copy of this registration to the city annually.
- Nonprofits selling merchandise or prepared food must collect and pay sales tax on what they sell; each nonprofit should provide a copy of their sales tax returns with each filing.
- Nonprofits must provide a copy of their annual report filed with the state; if the nonprofit operates as a 501c3, it must also proof of filing form 990 to the city.
- Nonprofits should quantify a public accessibility component — how does the organization serve all of Gulfport? For example, GHS has a clause in its lease that it cannot charge admission. However, many nonprofits seem not to have that clause in their lease as several have fee-based admission or participation.
- The nonprofit must have open board meetings. While it’s reasonable to expect a board of directors to have a “closed” meeting to discuss confidential or personnel matters, a portion of each board of directors meeting must be publicly noticed and accessible.
Mayor, as an organization, we are fiercely protective of the public trust. As such, we support the idea that anyone leasing city property must be held to standards that prove benefit for our community. While the board of the Gulfport Historical Society doesn’t support your initial suggestion and will not allow a city-placed executive board member — even if it means the Gulfport Historical Society finds itself without a home — we strongly support the intent behind what you wish to do. We would welcome the chance to work with the city to find a solution that accomplishes your goal.
Yours in Gulfport,
The Gulfport Historical Society, on behalf of the board of directors