York County Council pitches plan to avoid court fight with museum foundation

adouglas@heraldonline.comJune 25, 2013 

York County and the nonprofit foundation set up to support its museums could end up in court over a battle for donated assets and land if foundation leaders don’t agree to a counterproposal unanimously approved by the County Council on Tuesday night.

County Attorney Michael Kendree and the council are proposing an “amicable” agreement with the Culture and Heritage Foundation and don’t want to sue the organization, said council Chairman Britt Blackwell.

In a vote on Tuesday, the council is demanding an “accounting” of the foundation’s assets and spending.

The council’s vote also challenges the foundation’s May 2012 decision to change its purpose from solely supporting the county museum system to broadening its fundraising efforts to support other educational, cultural and historical opportunities for South Carolina residents.

Councilmen took the vote after nearly 3 hours of discussion behind closed doors which included four guests invited into executive session: Carey Tilley, executive director of the museums; David Plexico, chairman of the museum commission; and two representatives from the Foundation for the Carolinas.

If a “settlement agreement” can’t be reached by Friday, York County is prepared to sue the museum foundation to protect the Culture and Heritage Commission interests, council members said Tuesday.

The museum foundation wants the Foundation for the Carolinas to hold money and oversee reporting and distribution of assets related to the Cultural and Heritage Commission – a County Council-appointed body that manages the museum system.

In return, the foundation wants the council and the commission to “end to the constant threats, false accusations and unsubstantiated investigations that have gone on over the past four years,” said foundation Chairman Bill Easley in a written statement to the Herald on Tuesday night.

A partnership with the Foundation for the Carolinas will “set the right tone going forward” in regard to how donated land along the Catawba River will be used, he said.

The land near Interstate 77 and Sutton Road in the Fort Mill area was donated to the foundation in 1998 by Jane Spratt McColl.

The museum foundation was incorporated in South Carolina in 1992 to support York County’s museums and plans to use about 60 acres for a new public museum.

McColl donated 400 acres. After selling some land to Carolinas Healthcare System and the Fort Mill school district, the foundation has 340 acres left.

A development deal gone bad around 2008 led to the foundation owing $3.8 million – now paid off – to a former partner in the real estate plan. Other parts of the land contain Catawba Indian Nation burial grounds.

McColl has told the foundation that she is fine with the group’s goals, Easley said, to “put some land in conservation, provide right of way to the Carolina Thread Trail along the riverfront and develop some of the property” to exclusively benefit the museums.

The foundation’s change of its purpose – officially filed with the Secretary of State’s Office on May 1, 2012 – will only affect future fundraising activities, Easley said.

The Cultural and Heritage Commission didn’t know the foundation changed its purpose until this year, Plexico said.

A letter sent from Easley to donors was given to the County Council in early March.

“Numerous requests from donors over the years” is the reason for expanding the foundation’s purpose, the letter states.

The change has caused a “rift” between the foundation and the commission, Plexico said.

“Their initial reason to exist was to fund the museums,” he said, and most museum commissioners believe the county museums have a right to the foundation’s assets, including cash and the remaining land.

The commission has discussed the matter in executive session but Plexico declined to comment further on specifics about the talks behind closed doors.

He hopes, he said, the foundation and the commission can come to an agreement without a lawsuit.

The “mess,” Plexico said, has “sidetracked” the commission’s purpose of moving the county’s cultural and heritage efforts forward.

Plexico wants the foundation to be more transparent, he said, and realize that members of the public who donate money do not differentiate between the foundation and the museums.

Anna Douglas •  803-329-4068

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