A Custody Dispute: Will the Real Nonprofit Board Please Stand Up?

By Marine 69-71 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons

March 17, 2018; Arizona Republic

Peoria, Arizona, a suburb of Phoenix, is the site of what seems to be a towering battle for control of the local historical society. Two separate groups claim to be the duly elected directors of the board and have been battling since May of 2017. NPQ wrote about this small nonprofit suffering through a custody dispute last summer. At the time, we wrote:

When nonprofit boards become polarized, there’s always the potential for a public split. These generally confuse the public, containing as they do a mix of personal rancor and accusations of malfeasance, neglect, or dimwittedness. Add in a shared model of governance with a public body and you have a not-so-savory stone soup, as we see in Peoria, where two factions of the former board try to lay sole claim to being the official Peoria Arizona Historical Society.

According to reports in the local paper, the City of Peoria has taken the step to shut down the museum the society operates, even changing the locks on the doors on the five buildings it leases to the society.

One group, which has been operating the society and the museum, is demanding to know why the other group convened and elected themselves as directors and officers of the board. The second group claims that this was done in compliance with the society’s bylaws. If the society has members with voting rights, this might be possible, but otherwise it would seem like a stretch.

Apparently, the city has been willing to let the two sides, which include some of the town’s most prominent families, duke it out until January of this year, when an offer was made to hire someone to negotiate the situation and come up with a resolution. Both sides have said they are willing to participate.

The society does not have a website, and the most recent form accessible through GuideStar is a 990EZ from 2013 that lists only a development director, and no board directors. The website listed on the organization’s Facebook page is not active. The organization is also not listed in the city’s tourism webpage

No reason has been given for this battle, but it seems this has been brewing for some time. The minutes for a November 2016 meeting of the City’s Historic Preservation Commission have Kathy Moore calling for Karen Garbe and another commissioner to step down from the commission. She cited their “lack of trustworthiness as it pertains to their involvement with the Peoria Historical Society” as the reason. Moore is listed in the newspaper article as the treasurer and registered agent of the original board, and Garbe is listed as the treasurer for the group that elected itself in May of last year.—Rob Meiksins