Usually a place of beauty and tranquility, the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden is currently awash in ugly rumors and loud controversy. Two weeks ago, the nonprofit organization laid off 10 employees-some who had worked there for at least 30 years-and, in response, more than 50 dedicated volunteers declared a 30-day strike. The volunteers hope to press the garden’s board of trustees into a dialogue to determine the root of the ongoing financial crisis and discover what exactly is the current vision behind the garden.
“The community loves this garden,” explained volunteer Christine Riesenfeld, who is part of a new committee demanding the board’s attention. “It’s an essential part of the community and we want to make sure it stays a wonderful part of this community.”
The firings, which amount to 6.26 full-time employee positions, were required due to the garden’s dwindling endowment, which has suffered dramatically in the country’s economic freefall. So says Nancy Johnson, the garden’s vice president of marketing, who explained, “This in no way reflects on any staff member at all. It’s purely an economic decision that was extremely well thought-out and researched and came to us with much sadness.”
But volunteers and others say that’s not the case. Rather, they have expressed growing concerns for the past couple years over management of the garden. While no one is denying that the lousy economy has hurt the garden’s endowment, an increasing chorus is pointing at increased spending over the past few years as an irresponsible use of dwindling monies. They specifically cite the ongoing lawsuit against the County of Santa Barbara-which shut down an unannounced development on the garden’s historically protected meadow-as well as the contentious “Vital Mission Plan,” the garden’s ongoing “improvement” blueprint that involves new construction and has required millions to be spent on design, legal, and public relations fees. Furthermore, everyone’s curious why the garden’s upper management-specifically CEO and president Edward Schneider-didn’t bear some of the economic burden. According to online charity reports, Schneider made more than $210,000 in 2007 (including retirement funds) and, combined with the other two highest wage earners-vice presidents Bob Sherwood (finance) and Nancy Johnson (marketing)-the trio consumed 24 percent of the more than 40-person payroll that year.
Johnson said that upper management endured “salary rollbacks” earlier this year and that the Vital Mission Plan was a separate issue financially. “Our investments have suffered as many people’s investments have and as many organizations who do have endowments have suffered,” she explained. Sources say that the garden’s endowment was about $20 million a couple years ago and, due to the stock market’s tumble and other costs, it’s now about $8 million. While expressing appreciation for the volunteers, who collectively log more than 50 hours per day in unpaid work at the garden, Johnson said that life will go on. “They will definitely be missed,” she said, “but the garden will continue to provide the services that we always provide to the public : We are particularly appreciative to those who continue to support the garden’s important mission and to members of the community who have recently come forth to donate their services.”
The “30-day activity moratorium” was announced last Thursday at, oddly enough, the annual volunteer recognition luncheon. At the end of the event, which was attended by volunteers, staff, and at least one boardmember, it was announced that a strike was taking place, and about 50 volunteers-including the just-named volunteer-of-the-year-turned in their badges immediately. Altogether, 56 have thrown in their badges. “We care passionately about the garden,” said volunteer Carol Weingartner, a retired radiology oncologist who’s worried about the stewardship. “We’re there because we love it. We’re willing to be the face of the garden to the public, and we don’t take this lightly.”
Special outrage has been expressed at the firing of Carol Bornstein, who worked at the garden for 28 years and is considered a master in native California plants, which is the garden’s preeminent mission. Randy Baldwin, the general manager of San Marcos Growers’ nursery, said he was “flabbergasted” over that news. “For those of us interested in California native plants, Carol has been the most respected and important face of the garden for the past 30 years,” he said, calling her termination “incredibly shortsighted.”
But according to Weingartner and Riesenfeld, the strike isn’t about any single issue or employee. In fact, both women have publicly supported elements of the Vital Mission Plan and are in favor of much-needed improvements to the garden. They understand that certain staff positions could have possibly been combined and recognize the need to trim budgets in these tough times. They also hope that the trustees take their request more seriously than they did in February 2008, when they asked to have a non-voting seat on the board-they were flatly rejected by CEO Schneider. Worried about “ongoing management and financial crises,” the volunteers have asked to be presented with “all financial, legal, and administrative documents : including but not limited to financial statements, board minutes, projections, etc.” At the end of the 30 days, according to the declaration, the situation will be “re-evaluated and the Volunteer Activity Moratorium may or may not end.”