Five months ago, over 60 volunteers at the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden made the difficult decision to declare a “moratorium” on our work in protest of the perceived poor management and oversight of this historic institution.
Many of us were long-timers who had represented the Garden to the public, interpreting the mission of the Garden in daily tours year-round, guiding schoolchildren and adult visitors. We assisted the horticulturalists and gardeners in propagating plants, watering, and caring for the plant nursery. We helped in the library, shop, and herbarium, assisting at plant sales, special events and summer camps. Yearly, we contributed over 25,000 hours to the Garden.
We reluctantly withdrew our support because we were alarmed about the financial decline of the Garden, the seemingly arbitrary dismissals of employees, and the apparent lack of oversight by the trustees. Far from trying to allay our specific concerns, CEO Ed Schneider and the Board of Trustees refused to discuss them.
Our walkout in April followed the CEO’s decision to cut the Garden’s expenses by laying off one out of every four employees, including Carol Bornstein, a 28-year veteran of the Garden, distinguished as a horticulturalist, educator, and writer. Along with the layoffs, the salaries and hours of most remaining employees were drastically reduced.
We soon discovered that in 2007, before the layoffs, 24 percent of total salaries were going to the Garden’s three top executives. CEO Schneider received a salary of $181,457, plus benefits worth $33,267, totaling $214,724; plus rent-free housing. That’s more than his peers earned at the Museum of Natural History and the Museum of Art, local institutions with much larger budgets than the Garden’s. Our requests for the salary data for 2008 have been ignored.
From 2004 to 2009, the Garden’s cash and investments decreased from $21 million to about $8 million. While the Garden’s coffers were decreasing, the CEO’s salary increased almost 40 percent between 2005 and 2007.
We also discovered that the Board consisted of only 10 to 11 trustees over the last four years, even though the Garden’s Bylaws required a minimum of 15. We checked the Museum of Natural History and Museum of Art, and they each had 25-30 trustees. Rather than adding new trustees to fill the void, the Board amended the Garden’s Bylaws on September 17, reducing the minimum number of required trustees from fifteen to ten. The Bylaws define a quorum as not less than five, so three trustees can now constitute a majority vote. That means that just three people can make decisions affecting the choice of a director, compensation of employees, and the wider management of the Garden.
Under the previous bylaws, Board Chair Fife Symington’s term was scheduled to end next year. Under the new rules, Symington could remain as chair until 2013. In fact, term limits have been effectively negated for all trustees, as they may now remain on the Board until their replacement is seated. New trustees can now be nominated only by the “Executive Committee” of this ten-member Board, with no nominations permitted by other trustees, thereby further insulating this Board. A new provision was added to allow removal of any dissident trustee with or without cause.
A new Compensation Committee has been created which consists of Chair Symington and one other trustee selected by the chair, which will review the CEO’s performance and determine his compensation.
After five months of effort, we see even less accountability and transparency than when we began. The trustees have rejected our suggestion for a larger Board that includes individuals who bring a more diverse perspective to the institution. They have refused to allow a complete evaluation of the CEO by the full Board with input from the Garden’s staff, volunteers, and members. They have resisted our requests for a complete disclosure of financial matters, particularly 2008 salary data.
We earnestly believe that the Botanic Garden is a community treasure in peril. Many of you may also be concerned. Please contact us at Botcohorts@gmail.com so that we can let you know how you can help.-Bill Lewis, Christine Riesenfeld, and Carol Weingartner, on behalf of the volunteers supporting the moratorium
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Many in Santa Barbara are fighting an uphill battle to preserve our beloved Botanic Garden, which is being threatened by a grandiose expansion plan of buildings for classrooms, offices, and housing, etc., in the name of science, education, and research. The Garden, in a resolution the County Board of Supervisors unanimously passed in 2003, has been designated an Historical Landmark. (The total area of the Garden is 78 acres, of which 23 are designated a Historical Landmark.) Designed in 1926, it represents the work of notable landscape architects, including Bisell, Farrand, Lockwood de Forest, and Riggs. The Garden’s historic, prehistoric, archaeological, and scenic properties are unified aesthetically by plan and physical development. The Garden is unique in the U.S. because of the way the overall plan heightens and intensifies certain natural qualities of the site and is confined to native California plants of the surrounding area. It is characterized by a system of natural trails surrounding exhibits on either side of Mission Creek. The few necessary buildings were modestly designed to blend unobtrusively with the natural landscape. The expansion project is spearheaded by president and CEO Ed Schneider and a well-funded team of administrators and business leaders whose Vital Mission Plan will seriously impact the original design concept of the Garden. The County Historic Landmark Commission is compromised by an Environmental Impact Report that does not address the underlying issues contained in the Resolution of 2003. -Barbara Bonadeo