One 11-letter word put forth on the Maitland City Council agenda this week caused nearly four hours of oration at Monday’s meeting.
Vice Mayor Phil Bonus, who’s been openly criticizing the operation of Art and History Museums – Maitland (A&H) since January, put forth a decision item July 9 to terminate the lease the organization currently has with the city of Maitland. Its one-year trial period ends Sept. 30 before automatically renewing for 50 years.
“I’m happy to be the one to spur this discussion because if we didn’t have this dialogue now we could never have it,” Bonus said. “…If we roll into a 50-year lease right now, there’s no more planning. It’s done.”
He stressed that no one was threatening to close the Maitland Art Center, as code dictates the center must always be utilized for artistic and cultural purposes. Bonus said he was only calling into question the organization that operates it, and whether they are best for the job.
“You can hate me, you can say ‘How dare you Phil Bonus?’ I don’t care about that…” Bonus said. “…This time it is down to the deadline. I couldn’t live with myself if I didn’t ask this out loud.”
Leadership from A&H along with a throng of residents from Maitland and beyond crowded the Council chambers, into the lobby and out the door before the meeting even began, as talks of termination — which in the end would be thrown out — turned about.
Following a rebuttal by A&H Board President Bill Taulbee, Treasurer Valerie Seidel and Executive Director Andrea Bailey-Cox, a backing of support by Councilwoman Bev Reponen and Mayor Howard Schieferdecker, and public comment by more than 25 A&H supporters, it became clear that termination talks were not a popular tone among attendees.
“We feel we have met the charge to be the best Maitland Art and History Center we can be,” Taulbee said. He said A&H had no interest of renegotiating the lease, as he felt the organization had met or exceeded all cornerstones outlined for them, even amid “microscopic harassment” from the city.
As talks of a year extension of the trial lease period swirled, Taulbee and Seidel, along with many members of the public, stated that without a committed long-term lease A&H is hindered from seeking certain types of funding as they continue to work toward being more financially independent from the city.
Schieferdecker and Reponen were quick to defend A&H and even quicker to receive rounds of ovations from the audience, as Bonus and Councilwoman Linda Frosch pointed out flaws they observed in dealing with the organization, from transparency of operations to the level of communication and money management.
“I just want openness and honesty,” Frosch said. “This is our city, and that’s all I’m trying to do. I want to help.”
“As a cultural partner we should be working together and embracing them, not treating them like the enemy,” Shieferdecker said. “We should be coming along beside them to ensure their success.”
Throughout the back and forth, voices raised and fingers were pointed.
“Does it occur to anyone that there’s something wrong with this relationship?” Bonus said, as the Council and A&H board disparagingly attempted to come to a consensus.
The only unanimity all night on Council came when it was time to vote, as Councilwoman Frosch motioned to propose an offer to extend the trial lease one year as-is to A&H and all of Council agreed as midnight approached.
“All of us really want the same thing but we have different methods of getting it,” Reponen said, mentioning that every Council member indeed wants to see the art and culture in Maitland succeed.
It is now up to the city attorney to draw up the change, and for A&H to decide to accept the offer or not. The deadline for amending or terminating the lease before it automatically extends is Sept. 30.
“We’ve got to work together,” Bonus said. “No one wants to see the programs ended, no one wants to see the arts diminished… we’ve got to find the middle ground here.”