By DAN TOMASELLO
LYNNFIELD — The Select Board unanimously voted Monday to have the Historical Commission take over running the Meeting House.
The town put the Historical Commission, a local government body, in charge of the Meeting House last March because the town suspended its relationship with the Lynnfield Historical Society due to the nonprofit organization’s 501(c)(3) nonprofit status getting revoked in September 2011. The Historical Society’s nonprofit status was revoked because society officials did not file a Form 990-series return form for three consecutive years.
Town Counsel Tom Mullen recalled that a 1960 Town Meeting voted to have the Historical Society operate and maintain the Meeting House on the town’s behalf.
“I am concerned about entrusting the Meeting House building to any private group let alone the Lynnfield Historical Society in the condition in which it finds itself now,” said Mullen.
Mullen noted that the Lynnfield Historical Society is a “Massachusetts nonprofit organization that has lost its tax-exempt status with the Internal Revenue Service, failed to file tax returns for several years and was for some time out of compliance with the Attorney General’s Division of Public Charities.”
“The society did successfully register with the Division of Public Charities in July, which is good news,” said Mullen. “As far as I know, it still has its problems with the IRS.”
Mullen said he was “surprised to learn that the town has for many years, without any written agreement, permitted the society to arrange rentals of the Meeting House, to collect rent payments and to apply the proceeds to the cost of maintaining the building.”
“All of this was done without periodic accountings,” said Mullen. “I know there was a Town Meeting vote in 1960 that authorized something like this relationship. Whatever the state of the law was at that time, it is clear that the town never had the authority to actually convey that real property to any private group.”
Mullen said the only way a nonprofit organization could possibly run a municipal building is through the public bidding process.
“You never award something like that without public bidding,” said Mullen. “I recommended that the Select Board, which does have the title to the Meeting House property, determine not to allow that property to be managed by the Historical Society. If you want to have the kind of arrangement that is like the arrangement that had prevailed in the past with a private organization, you really need to structure a very tight request for proposals.”
Mullen said having the Historical Commission oversee the Meeting House is the best path forward.
“That has the benefit of simplicity because we avoid public bidding and we avoid any contractual entanglement with a private organization,” said Mullen.
The Select Board did not have any questions for Mullen and the board unanimously voted to transfer custody of the Meeting House to the Historical Commission.
Historical Society Treasurer Bob Gillon asked if the dozen society members in attendance could comment on Mullen’s recommendation.
Select Board Chairman Dick Dalton said no.
Several Historical Society members held up handmade signs that stated “respect Town Meeting vote in 1960 that gave the Meeting House to the Historical Society” while Mullen was giving his presentation. After the vote took place, a woman in the audience called the decision “unbelievable” and another woman in attendance said the vote was “shameful.”
While society members were exiting the Al Merritt Media and Cultural Center, Historical Society President Linda Gillon handed the Villager a memo and stated, “Try not to screw this up.” When the Villager asked Bob if he and Linda wanted to be interviewed about the vote, he said “not with you.”
In the memo given to the Villager, Linda said the society’s nonprofit status “was allowed to lapse due to oversight.”
“Despite the mistake, the society continued to raise money for all upkeep of the town’s symbol,” said Linda. “The current officers of the society have worked diligently to restore that status and are now very close. The faux pas was not considered serious by two levels of government. Neither the IRS nor the state Department of Revenue assessed any penalties for the oversight. As it turns out, it is a common occurrence with volunteer groups.”
Linda also accused Historical Commission Chairman Kirk Mansfield of using the opportunity to “take control of the building, despite Town Meeting’s direction 60 years ago, with no confirmation vote taken by his fellow commissioners.” Mullen and Town Administrator Rob Dolan informed Historical Society officials last winter that the town was suspending its relationship with the nonprofit organization. Dolan and Mullen subsequently informed Mansfield and the rest of the commission that it was being put in charge of the Meeting House and Pope-Richard Historical Centre in early March.
Additionally, Linda noted that the DPW changed the locks for the Meeting House and the Pope-Richard Historical Centre. She also accused the commission and the town of not returning the society’s property that is still inside the Historical Centre.
Dolan said in an interview with the Villager that the commission and the society could not agree which artifacts belonged to each organization during a site visit earlier this year.
“All parties agreed that the safest place to keep the artifacts was in the Pope-Richard Historical Centre until ownership could be determined if that is even possible,” said Dolan.
Linda also accused Mansfield and the Historical Commission of “hijacking” the society’s Country Store fundraiser this December.
“As the society planned to host the 58th annual Country Store this December, it applied for use of the Meeting House, on its traditional date, but was rebuffed by the chair of the Historical Commission,” stated Linda. “It appears, by statements made in the local press, that the commission intends to run the Country Store going forward, preventing the society from ever running their Meeting House fundraiser again.”
Mansfield proposed during a recent Historical Commission meeting that longtime Country Store Committee Co-Chair Karen Nascembeni be put in charge of a subcommittee tasked with bringing the fundraiser back. The Historical Commission unanimously approved forming the subcommittee despite Bob Gillon’s objections. Nascembeni said during the meeting that society members are more than welcome to participate in this year’s Country Store.
Linda said having the Select Board transfer custody of the Meeting House to the Historical Commission will cost taxpayers more money.
“The taxpayers, bottom line, will foot the bill for all related costs if the Historical Commission is granted custody of the Meeting House,” stated Linda.
Dolan said the Select Board’s decision had nothing to do with Mansfield.
“The issue is that the system does not meet state and legal guidelines, and best financial practices,” said Dolan.
Mansfield emailed the Villager the following statement about the Select Board’s decision.
“The decision to officially turn over guardianship of the 1714 Meeting House to the Historical Commission makes me very grateful to have town officials who not only believe in our mission to preserve Lynnfield, but believe in us,” stated Mansfield. “The Meeting House is a very special building and we look forward to continuing its traditions and working with so many residents, town organizations and out-of-town renters. I want to make it clear that the Historical Society is welcomed, and encouraged to host its program series at the Meeting House, which has always been an educational asset to the residents.”