When the museum board met last month, they were greeted by at least 30 people, an unusually high turnout for the group. Many in the audience were supporters of museum president Joe Noriel, who has after it was revealed that the museum has lost $38,00 over the past two years and planned to sell some donated items to make up the difference.
But there were critics too, among them former museum president Susan Villa and former board member Elissa DeCaro, as well as several former volunteers and employees, who delivered a letter of concern to the board.
In it, they spelled out a variety of issues they said put the museum’s very existence in jeopardy, including alleged mishandling of valuable artifacts such as a chair from General Vallejo’s home and a painting by a Petaluma artist that was showcased at the 1915 Pan Pacific Exposition in San Francisco.
Other concerns centered around not having a financial plan for future museum operations and alleged conflicts of interest among board members, including a museum staffer who serves on the board and another who is a licensed antiques dealer and sits on the collections committee.
“A common museum practice, as for all nonprofits, is to have all parties involved with a museum sign a conflict of interest statement legally obligating them to refrain from any activity that would have the appearance of a conflict of interest,” the group wrote in their letter.
Read the full letter on the right
At the meeting, Noriel said the board welcomed feedback and would take it into consideration. But when DeCaro tried to say something after reading her letter, the board prevented her, saying she had already used up more than three minutes of her public comment time.
Noriel has not returned Petaluma Patch’s numerous calls for comment. Messages left for at least four board members were also not returned.
However, Don Phoenix, the city liason to the board and a supervisor for the city's Parks & Recreation Department, said the board was addressing the issues. He added that most of the artifacts that were not on display are kept in a climate- controlled storage unit off McDowell Boulevard.
“People are resistant to change or at least look at it as not so good,” Phoenix said about the criticism of museum practices. “One of the things these people say is that entertainment should not be part of the mission statement. But if you want to bring in younger people, you have to do something to get their attention so that when they are there, they’ll stop by and see the Petaluma artifacts.”
Earlier this month, it was also revealed that the Petaluma Museum Association’s corporation status had expired, meaning they could not enter into any new contracts. The suspended status was the result of the PMA failing to submit a tax form for the past 14 years.
However, the museum did not lose its 501c3 status and its corporation status has since been reinstated. But it will have to pay a penalty of around $500 to the California Tax Franchise Board.
The letter also asked the board to review and revise its policies around the acquisition and sale of artifacts, saying that “the process should require participation of qualified museum professionals and research into the collections policies of similar museums and ensure complete transparency.”
Following a furor over the proposed estate sale, which had been scheduled for December, the museum canceled the event.
Are you concerned about the future of the Petaluma Historic Museum or do you like the changes it has made in recent years?