Bob Ornstein takes an informal poll of the crowd on issues relating to the Santa Barbara Botanic Gardens
Paul Wellman

More than 60 people concerned about the future of the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden gathered at the library’s Faulkner Gallery on Tuesday afternoon to chart a course for how to influence the governance of the nonprofit institution, which has been wracked with money woes, lay-offs, and controversy over the Vital Mission Plan development project. The event was organized by Christine Riesenfeld and Bill Lewis, the leaders of the Garden volunteers who went on strike last spring to protest the administration’s trajectory and who see the impending July departure of longtime director Edward Schneider as a possible opening to more constructive dialogue with the board of trustees and management.

Though organizers hoped to keep the conversation positive — moderator Bob Ornstein explained in the beginning, “This is not about looking backward, it’s about looking forward” — the crowd’s comments hit on the board and Vital Mission Plan right away. But the true focus quickly became whether the meeting would have any real impact. “Is the Board of Trustees answerable to anyone?” asked one audience member. “If they are not, I’m just questioning whether this meeting does us any good.” Other audience members suggested that the striking volunteers were simply too hopeful that the board would ever listen to their concerns. Admitted Riesenfeld, “I guess we are crazy cockeyed optimists after a year of this.”

When asked whether the Botanic Garden would be sending a representative to the meeting, spokeswoman Nancy Johnson explained on Tuesday morning, “Right now, we don’t expect to attend.” She explained that, of the 60 volunteers who started the strike, a “large number” had returned — that number was later verified to be seven — and that another 40 had joined the ranks. “We do meet with them,” said Johnson, who also noted that a volunteer tied to the striking group, Carolyn Kincaid Henderson, has been named a trustee. (Riesenfeld responded to that appointment by explaining, “That, we feel, is a good in-road, but being one voice is very difficult.”)

Back at the meeting, former trustee Karen Davidson, who quit last fall after less than six months on the board, spoke at length about her experience and how hard it was to influence the majority, who she feels were scared into compliance. But she too kept the tone positive and hopeful. “It’s not about getting back at this board,” she said. “It’s about opening up the good people of this board.” When asked directly what sort of leverage the group had, Davidson reponded, “If I knew that, I would still be on the board.”

Such leverage — indeed, the point of the meeting altogether — was was very much on the minds of the Garden’s adminstration on Tuesday, as Johnson said it was “curious” that the organizers were still calling themselves volunteers since they no longer do so. “Those serious about the Garden have returned and we are all working together to rebuild the Garden and carry out our research, those opposed to the Vital Mission Plan and supportive of former staff remain non-volunteers and have no standing,” she explained. On whether the group’s meeting would have any impact, Johnson explained, “The Garden is a not-for-profit corporation, we are not a public entity subject to popularity votes or public action efforts.”

As well, less than an hour after the meeting ended, the Garden’s board of trustees chairman Fife Symington put out his own statement, offering appreciation for the interest but explaing that “working together to rebuild the Garden, rather than attacking individual trustees and staff, would be more productive.” Symington cited the poor economy as the reason for financial troubles — “We cannot control the economy any more than we can control the weather,” he wrote — and said those woes was “multiplied” by the Jesusita fire and the “constant attack of misinformation” about the Vital Mission Plan. He goes on to explain that the trustees did try to meet with the striking volunteers last year, but that they were “rebuffed.” In welcoming back any volunteers who want to return, Symington ended his statement with, “We reject any demands from those who have a special interest in reinstatement of one former staff member or those who participate in the character assassination of others.”

Nonetheless, Bob Ornstein, the moderator ,said that the group had “great moral suasion” and felt that there was “momentum” now that the meeting had taken place. The organizers ran through the themes of the meeting at the end, and were planning to send them to the board of trustees, which meets on Thursday, March 11.


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