War of words at historical society in Cape May County

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Former members blast board, but leaders dismiss it as politics

MIDDLE TOWNSHIP — A bare-knuckle brawl seems to be brewing in the quiet world of Cape May County history.

Former board members of the Cape May County Historical and Genealogical Society have accused the organization of poor leadership and said it is financially unstable. The letter was signed by five people who had been involved with the museum.

But society officials contend that the nonprofit society is running just fine. They indicated that the criticism is political, and comes because the organization refuses to be operated as a branch of county government. 

Former society board secretary Rita Fulginiti is leading the effort against the nonprofit organization. She is also the county clerk. She mailed the Nov. 24 letter to organization members.

The society has since fired off its own letter.

“We are seriously concerned about the future sustainability of the CMCH&GS and more importantly about the security of its historical collections and artifacts, valuable and irreplaceable items placed in the care of the CMCH&GS for the education and enjoyment of future generations,” Fulginiti said in the Nov. 24 letter, which was also signed by trustee emeritus Carol Boyd, member Robert Boyd, member and former volunteer Susan Coyle Dowling, and member and former volunteer Bruce Tell.

Society president Howard Aaronson indicated in an email to The Gazette that there’s nothing to be worried about with the organization.

“Our membership renewals for 2014 continue to come in. We have had no adverse comments from any of our members,” he said. “The collections are secure. We look forward to opening the new military room, which is now under construction, on July 4. We will have space to display many wonderful artifacts that have not been seen in many years. Contributions from corporations and individuals are helping to fund this exciting project.”

The Cape May County Historical and Genealogical Society runs a museum and genealogical library at 504 Route 9 North in Middle Township. The society was founded in 1927 and opened the museum in 1930.

The Cresse-Holmes house that houses the museum dates from the 1700s and 1800s. The site includes furnishings, costumes, tools and decorative and practical objects from the 17th to 20th centuries.

Fulginiti indicated in an interview that she hopes something good comes from the Nov. 24 letter.

“The hope is that the members are interested enough to help the CMCH&GS regain its former glory as the relevant history organization in Cape May County,” she said.

Fulginiti told members when they attend the Dec. 3 annual meeting to “consider that the culture of your Board of Trustees has got to change if the CMCH&GS is to endure.  Your leaders need to be working together in a productive, dignified, professional manner.” In the letter, she also said that members need to pose important questions and demands the truth.

The December meeting went smoothly, according to Aaronson.

“Everything is totally settled down. There is no dissension,” he said.

Society members read the two letters and understood the situation, Aaronson said.

The Nov. 24 letter from the former members says that the organization in recent years has been mired in ineffective leadership.

“Board meetings have become horribly contentious. Major decisions are being made by a few without regard to those who disagree, and at times without any consultation,” reads the letter. “Unsubstantiated allegations against county employees and fellow board members are commonly discussed at board meetings.”

One of the employees discussed was then-curator Pary Woehlcke Tell. According to the letter, Tell has since been transferred to another county department, in tourism. She was moved Nov. 8. She has worked for the county government for six years and is a former society trustee. Along with her departure went the county funding for the curator position. That will leave the society to pay for a new full-time curator on its own.

 “Freeholder Liaison Marie Hayes offered and encouraged Ms. Tell to accept the transfer after attending the Oct. 10 Board meeting and witnessing the Board disfunction [sic] for herself,” reads the letter. “The CMCH&GS no longer has a full time professional curator director funded by the county library.  Ms. Tell is a highly qualified professional, respected by her peers in the history community.  Her experience as a curator of collections, talents as a grant writer, supervisor/leader of the other county employees went with her (and her full time salary) to Culture and Heritage.  We expect the grants the CMCH&GS relies upon will dry up.”

The county government helps fund the society. The county pays for one full-time and two part-time employees and maintenance for the grounds on Route 9 in Middle Township.

Aaronson said he does not know how much the county spends on the salaries; those employees fall under the county library.

The society’s budget has remained the same for the last several years, with a 5 percent difference, depending on advertising, programs and more, according to Aaronson. He said the budget is around $100,000 a year, funded by membership dues, donations and more.

For now, the society is doing without a full-time curator. Aaronson said a professional is on call to help at the facility and the trustees are working together, too, but didn’t give many details about who that professional is, or if he or she is being paid or working pro bono.

In an email interview Jan. 2, Fulginiti said she noticed the significant decline in the organization’s leadership after president James Waltz left in 2009.

“I complained about the lack of advance notice of meeting agendas and a meeting schedule established in advance.  Very little was actually accomplished by the board at their meetings,” Fulginiti said.

She said the meetings became much less civil to her and others in 2012.

The society fired back in its letter to members.

“Hopefully you won’t let the false claims of a few ex-board members and their spouses, color your opinion of the society,” said member Jaime Hand in the society’s letter. “The authors of that letter left our organization of their own free will, and I know of no one on the board that is sorry that they are gone. In fact, since their departure, we held our latest monthly board meeting, (November) and it was a calm, pleasant experience; All of the board members working together for the good of the society. The meeting reminded me of how things were before our last director/ curator; Rachel Rodgers Dolhanzyk left us to further her career.”

Hand called Dolhanzyk the society’s last full-time professional curator. She was also brought back in 2013 to help catalogue and inventory items in the society’s vault, according to Aaronson.

Fulginiti said in the Nov. 24 letter that members were shocked and appalled after a story appeared in the Aug. 13, Middle Township Gazette on a recent inventory project at the historical site. 

“Anonymous sources claimed that artifacts have gone missing and the ‘collection has not been taken care of as it should,’” the letter reads. “It is unbelievable to us that this article was not discussed at a board meeting and no effort was taken by the president to disclaim what we know to be untrue.  Could the ‘anonymous sources’ be sitting board members attempting to discredit Pary Woehlcke Tell by their statements?  The membership needs to know that certain board members, for years, have had unfettered access to the vault and collections.  We agree with the inventory project but find the thinly veiled attempt to discredit Ms. Tell and smear other board members disturbing.”

Aaronson said all the items are accounted for.

“Ironically, when the letter writers mentioned, ‘by-laws not being followed’, ‘private club for a select few,’ and ‘mismanagement,’ they might as well have been describing their own behavior over the past five years or so,” Hand said in the response letter. “Most, if not all of the complaints mentioned in their letter, occurred while our recently departed director/curator, Pary Woelke Tell was responsible for our museum and staff. In my opinion, the only thing the majority of the board is guilty of is finally standing up and insisting that the society be run as the non-profit that it is and not a branch of the county government, and taking the politics out of the organization.

The organization’s financial hardship dates back to 2009, according to Fulginiti.

And, Fulginiti alleges that each board meeting in recent years focused on the deteriorating shape of the organization.

But Hand in the letter says most nonprofit museums face tough financial times.

“Despite this I can tell you that just in the last few months, thanks to the generosity of our members and other donors; we have pledges for approximately one third of the $100,000 needed to complete our Military Room project,” he said.

In the letter, Hand said that more than 25 volunteers have signed on in the past few months who will be researchers in genealogy library or tour guides for the Cresse/Holmes House and Smith Barn/Military Room Complex.

“We’re here and doing our thing,” Aaronson said. “All the trustees are working together for the first time.”

The museum is closed through March 31 for inventorying and cataloging. The library is open 10 a.m.-3 p.m. Thursday and Friday.

For more information, see www.cmcmuseum.org .

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