The Southwest Museum Board of Trustees placed negotiations for a possible merger with the County Museum of Natural History on "indefinite hold" Tuesday in the wake of public protest and allegations of possible conflicts of interest among directors of both institutions.
Dr. Norman Sprague, president of the board, also announced that he is removing himself from any further involvement in the takeover issue, but at the same time called the conflict-of-interest charges "baseless."
The conflict issue had been raised by City Councilman Richard Alatorre, who on Monday asked state Atty. Gen. John K. Van de Kamp to investigate after Alatorre learned that Sprague and his daughter, Caryll Mingst, serve on the Southwest Museum board and his son-in-law, William Mingst, is a county museum board member.
Takeover by County Museum
The decision to break off negotiations for a merger--in which the Southwest Museum would have been taken over by the county museum and the Mount Washington institution's collection of Native American artifacts displayed in large part at a new facility in the San Fernando Valley--was reached Tuesday afternoon.
In a prepared statement read by Patrick Houlihan, the museum's director, Sprague said the board "is deeply gratified by the initial show of public support and concern for our great institution." Houlihan has resigned effective Nov. 30, in part because he opposed the merger initiative.
Because of opposition to the merger, which had been increasingly vocal since the takeover talks were made public last week, Sprague said the museum would put "any discussions" with the county museum "on indefinite hold until we see what financial support materializes from other sources."
Opposition had come from a variety of community and Latino organizations that protested loss of independence by the 80-year-old museum and the possible relocation of large segments of its collection to a satellite of the county museum proposed for the Sepulveda Basin.
In a letter Tuesday to Sprague, top officials of the natural history museum said that, even if the merger occurred, the existing Mount Washington facility "could never be shut down, nor would it be closed to the public." The letter, however, reiterated that the county museum's merger plan continues to include eventual relocation of major exhibitions and public programs to "another site to be chosen later."
Sprague said the Southwest Museum board will explore new tactics to increase the institution's $4-million endowment fund, which currently does not generate enough income to overcome budget shortfalls ranging between $200,000 and $400,000 a year. The financial strain precipitated the merger talks, which began several months ago. Officials of both museums said the county museum initiated the talks.
The statement said Sprague had personally removed himself from any future role in the merger issue. "While the recent allegation in the press concerning possible conflict (of interest) is completely baseless, I do not want to do anything that would hinder otherwise productive discussion," Sprague said.
"We are all dedicated to finding a long-term financial solution for the Southwest Museum," Sprague said, "and we appreciate any and all financial support, whether from public or governmental agencies."
Alatorre said calling off the merger talks was a "good sign" that indicates that museum officials had come to realize "the possible impact that a merger would have on the facility." Alatorre urged a "reconstitution" of the museum's board, however, possibly to include both business people with new fund-raising ideas and Eastside community people.
"There has to be a plan of action," Alatorre said. "I'm awaiting that plan."
Andrea Ordin, an assistant attorney general who handles charitable trust matters for Van de Kamp's Los Angeles office, said an initial review had begun to determine if grounds exist for an investigation in greater depth. Ordin said her office has authority to investigate any merger of charitable institutions--particularly to review conduct of members of boards of directors. She said the investigation would be suspended unless the two museums resume formal merger negotiations.