Dickinson County Commissioners heard from an Abilene woman Thursday who said she has deep concern about the future of the Dickinson County Historical Society (DCHS).
Nanc Scholl told commissioners she was one of a number of county residents who want to know what’s going on with the organization.
“I’m here to bring it to your attention. I don’t know if you can do anything,” Scholl said. “But if we don’t get active — a lot of us are willing to serve on the board — we’re going to lose our historical society. It’s that serious.”
Scholl said she was there on behalf of Abilene resident Louise Frey, DCHS lifetime member, who wrote a letter to the commission that expressed numerous concerns about changes that have been implemented in the past year that Frey fears could cause DCHS to lose its not-profit 501c3 status.
Among the concerns listed, the letter alleges that bylaws are not being followed, some board members were compelled to resign, long-time programs have been cancelled, hours of operation have changed without notice and more.
However, Judy Zimmer, historical society administrator, said during a telephone interview Thursday afternoon that county commissioners have heard these concerns before, the allegations are not accurate, and the DCHS board will answer questions from historical society members during the annual meeting.
The meeting is scheduled for 7 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 26 at the historical society, 412 S. Campbell.
“We are conducting business according to the bylaws,” Zimmer said. “We are here every day of the week. We’re still open Saturdays and Sundays although we might have some winter hours — which is not unusual — and the doors are open for business.”
“Everything that anyone is concerned with will be addressed at the annual meeting,” she added.
No county control
While the organization is known as the Dickinson County Historical Society, it is not a county organization and commissioners have no control. DCHS is a private, non-profit organization with its own bylaws and board.
The county does, however, allocate monies to the DCHS yearly as one of many outside organizations it funds. For fiscal year 2019, the county gave the historical society $72,500 and the 2020 budget sets aside $62,500 for the DCHS.
To receive the $10,000 not funded in 2020, the society’s board will need to present a plan to the commission clarifying how the money will be used. Then the commission can decide whether to approve the additional allocation, according to Dickinson County Finance Director Janelle Dockendorf.
Commissioner Ron Roller said he is a new to the commission and unfamiliar with the historical society. He asked Scholl to explain what is going on.
Scholl, who served as a DCHS board member for several years, has been the primary researcher for many of the Abilene area homes, businesses and other buildings that are on the state and national register of historic places.
Scholl told commissioners that she and other researchers have been denied access to the historical files at DCHS — something that is allowed according to the organization’s bylaws.
“One of the benefits of being a member of the historical society is being able to access the research facility,” Scholl said.
“In the last two weeks I was asked to do some research on a building downtown by a prominent citizen and I had to tell him all I can give you is what is in my files,” Scholl said. “I cannot get into the historical society to look at photographs, obituaries, city directories or anything that’s researchable.”
Scholl, who also is active in the Abilene Heritage Homes Association, said AHHA members were unable to research information for the annual “Home for the Holidays” tour of historic homes scheduled in December —something the organization has been doing at the historical society since 1988, she said.
Also, long-time volunteers have been told they are no longer needed, Scholl said.
“I volunteered down there for 20 years. There were five of us that volunteered in the archives in the vault and processing the papers,” Scholl explained. “We got a notice one day that said we can’t come back anymore.”
Another concern Frey and Scholl expressed is that bylaws are not being followed and decisions are being made by a handful of people. The bylaws state the board is supposed to include 18 members, but Scholl said many trustees have resigned.
Scholl herself told commissioners she resigned from the board “for my own sanity,” but said she was willing to serve again.
Without 18 members on the board, the women believe decisions are being made without a quorum and then implemented.
“If there’s not 18, there needs to be at least a quorum amount on the board to conduct business legally,” Scholl said.
During the phone interview, Zimmer said the historical society is following the bylaws and DCHS recently sent out an email survey asking members to vote yes or no for a bylaw change that would reduce the number of board members from 18 to seven.
“We had close to 100 responses,” Zimmer said. “The change was overwhelmingly supported.”
County Administrator Brad Homman, also a member of the historical society, mentioned the survey during the commission’s work session and said he understood that the vote was “70/30 in favor” of reducing the number of board members.
Beyond county control
Besides Frey’s letter and Scholl’s comments, Commission Chairman Lynn Peterson said he has heard from other community members.
“I’ve heard from about half a dozen people. Some would say six isn’t that many, but typically if we receive comments it’s one or two at a time so it does seem to be a bit of a community discussion,” Peterson said, but added, “This may be a matter beyond our realm of control as a county commission.”
He suggested DCHS members attend Tuesday’s annual meeting — which happens to conflict with the annual Dickinson County 4-H Achievement Banquet.
“We wanted you to be aware of it (what is happening),” Scholl told commissioners. “The county donates almost $70,000 of taxpayer money to the historical society every year. That’s where a lot of us are coming from: That’s our tax dollars going to something that belongs to our county.
“Some of those records are supposed to be public record that came from our county and we can’t see them,” she added.
Not a public entity
Despite calls for commission intervention, the historical society is a private organization. Thus it is not held to the same public meeting standard as county, city or even school board meetings. Nor is the annual historical society meeting open to media coverage.
“We are not part of the open meetings law because we’re a non-profit private organization, which has nothing to do with open meetings,” Zimmer said, noting that an entity has to receive a mill levy to be “public.”
“Somebody should study that and publish that sometime too,” she added.
Contact Kathy Hageman at email@example.com