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Thursday, July 24, 2014 12:01 am

Dysfunction on display

Board meets while ALPLM twists

 It was difficult to discern during a meeting of the Illinois Historic Preservation board last week that Eileen Mackevich, executive director of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum, is in charge of the institution.

The meeting of the IHPA board, which oversees the ALPLM, began with a brief discussion of plans for an ad hoc committee to discuss governance questions that have loomed large since May, when House speaker Michael Madigan moved to divorce the institution from IHPA and make it a standalone agency. Then there was a lot of talk about plans to observe the institution’s 10th anniversary next year. Then it was on to a long discussion of a damning report from a consultant who excoriated the institution for a lack of planning and lack of progress since the American Association of Museums in a 2010 report said that the ALPLM has a long way to go before it can gain accreditation. Not much progress has been made since then, according to Karen Witter, the consultant who was paid to report that the cachet of Abraham Lincoln has rescued the ALPLM from shortcomings of people who run the place.

Through it all, Mackevich, who is paid $150,000 a year, said nothing. Finally, with the meeting 90 minutes old and ALPLM the focus the entire time, Mackevich spoke up when IHPA director Amy Martin said that it is time that the museum adopted a strategic plan and trustee Gary Hammons asked who is responsible for writing a plan and presenting it to the institution’s staff.

“I would say that’s a governance issue,” offered Mackevich, who met with Madigan about divorcing the ALPLM from IHPA before the speaker’s proposal blindsided the agency.

“I would have to say that after 10 years, we should have a strategic plan,” Martin shot back. “I do not see governance as an issue of strategic planning for the museum.”

Mackevich and Martin, her putative boss, have been fighting for months over who has the authority to run the institution. Dissatisfied with what she saw as a lack of progress in 10th anniversary planning, Martin last fall put Clare Thorpe, head of guest entry who is responsible for ticket sales, in charge of anniversary planning with a basic question left unanswered: What is there to celebrate?

Attendance is down, open warfare rages for control of ALPLM and money is short. It is an institution so lacking in direction, not to mention accreditation, that Mackevich last year sought a written legal opinion from Thomas Schanzle-Haskins, then a lawyer in private practice, now a federal magistrate, on how much authority Martin has to make decisions on the operations of the ALPLM.

While Martin acts like Mackevich’s boss, she doesn’t have the power to fire her. That authority lies with Gov. Pat Quinn, and the governor has, at least so far, been content to let the ALPLM lie in limbo amid bickering.

A proposal to form a committee to study governance questions has gotten off to an inauspicious start as members of the institution’s advisory board, which under Madigan’s proposal would take over IHPA’s role in overseeing ALPLM, have declined to participate. In a July 10 email to IHPA board chairwoman Sunny Fischer, advisory board chairman Steven Beckett objected to an IHPA “precondition” that would not allow anyone with strong opinions on the institution’s governance to sit on the committee. Beckett also objected to allowing representatives from the ALPLM’s fundraising foundation to sit on the committee – a charity, he suggested, should not be making decisions about governance of the institution, yet the foundation has been actively participating in governing the institution for years. Under the IHPA plan, the IHPA board, the advisory board and the foundation would each have two members on the committee.

“I must reluctantly conclude that current leadership at the IHPA want to deflect criticism, want to pretend that this is a personnel matter of some sort and frankly just want this governance issue to go away,” Beckett wrote.

Fischer did not dispute that she wants to limit membership on the ad hoc committee to people who have not expressed strong opinions on governance.

“What you call preconditions, I call a reasonable attempt to ensure the panel members are not locked into a position before they begin their work,” Fischer wrote in a July 15 response to Beckett.

Beckett told Fischer that she was free to invite members of the advisory board to sit on the ad hoc committee, but, as of last Friday’s IHPA board meeting, she has had little success. Fischer told the board that three of the advisory board’s 11 members have responded to invitations from her, with two saying they didn’t have time to sit on the committee and another not making an immediate decision on whether to serve. Nonetheless, Fischer said that the IHPA board will move forward with the committee, even without input from the advisory board.

The IHPA board proposed the committee and decided how many members it will have and where they will come from. The IHPA is in charge of hiring a facilitator. The IHPA board chairwoman says that she has invited specific members of the advisory board to sit on the committee. But the IHPA is not in charge of the project, Fischer insisted last week.

“I want to make clear that this is an open process, that IHPA is not controlling the process,” Fischer told her colleagues.

The ad hoc committee is a fine idea so far as the governor is concerned.

David Blanchette, Quinn spokesman, said that the governor has no opinion on whether the governance structure should be changed.

Why not?

Blanchette said that he would call back with an answer. Hours later, he had this to say:

“There is an independent task force that’s being formed to study the issue and we fully support the public discussion this independent task force will bring.”  

Contact Bruce Rushton at brushton@illinoistimes.com.

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