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Head of Catalina Island Conservancy at center of controversy

The board is meeting to address the departure of officers and scientists under the leadership of Ann Muscat.

December 13, 2012|By Louis Sahagun, Los Angeles Times
  • Avalon Bay at Santa Catalina Island. The Santa Catalina Island Conservancy, which manages 88% of the island, has lost half a dozen senior staff and scientists in the last year.
Avalon Bay at Santa Catalina Island. The Santa Catalina Island Conservancy,… (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles…)

The conservancy that manages 88% of Santa Catalina Island is roiling with dissent that has led to the departures of a half-dozen senior officers and scientists in the last year.

At the core of the rancor is dissatisfaction with the direction the nonprofit Santa Catalina Island Conservancy has taken under Ann Muscat, president and executive officer. Muscat helped engineer a controversial shift away from a focus on conservation and toward creation of tourism-oriented attractions intended to bring more visitors — and revenue — to the island.

Many residents of the island 22 miles off the Southern California coast depend on the conservancy for their livelihoods. Established by the Wrigley family, the island's wealthiest and most powerful benefactors, the organization employs 75 people and operates on a $12-million budget. It is funded by philanthropy and grants, endowments and earned income from gift stores sales and inland tours.

The conservancy's governing board plans to meet in closed session Friday to discuss the problem. The board could trigger a significant retooling of the conservancy's staff at a time when it is trying to raise funds for costly tourist attractions.

"We clearly have issues here," board Chairman John Cotton said. "No organization likes to have its talent taken from it. Does it hinder our ability to push forward? You bet."

"We will come to a decision based on what we believe is best for the organization," Cotton said.

Critics say Muscat, an aloof and tough manager who earns $286,000 a year, is to blame for the ongoing problems and should be removed from office. Muscat was unavailable for comment.

"There's dissension within the ranks of the conservancy and it's up to a good manager to deal with it," Avalon Mayor Bob Kennedy said. "The island's residents consider the Catalina interior part of their home. But there's been a disconnect with the conservancy because Ann doesn't care about that. It's her way or the highway."

In October, the board's then-chairman, Cliff Hague, quit and leveled snarling broadsides about Muscat's managerial style. Hague declined to comment this week.

Norris Bishton, a lawyer and chairman of the conservancy's legal affairs committee, said, "Ann is a Type-A personality who is hard-driving and expects people to do their jobs. Does that ruffle feathers? Yes it does."

Among others who left the conservancy are Jackie McDougall, chief development officer, who resigned in October.

Mel Dinkel, the conservancy's treasurer and chief operating officer, resigned in May. Bishton said Dinkel left because he found a better job elsewhere. However, Dinkel did not have a job when he quit.

Dinkel's wife, Leslie Baer, the conservancy's chief of educational outreach and marketing, is out on sick leave and was unavailable for comment.

Carlos de la Rosa, one of the most popular scientists on the island, stepped down in March as chief conservation and science officer.

In a written statement, de la Rosa, now director of the Organization of Tropical Studies' La Selva biological station in Costa Rica, said, "The conservancy had completely lost its way under Ann's poor leadership, and I couldn't bear to watch it crumble ... as it is continuing to do."

The organization has undergone internal investigations into Muscat's conduct in office. Bishton said he personally investigated a claim that the conservancy violated its rules by paying about $5,000 in travel expenses for Muscat's husband to join her on a conservancy-sponsored "donor development trip" in 2009 to an island off Baja California, Mexico.

Sources say that Muscat later reimbursed the organization after other officers pointed out that there was no policy for covering a spouse's travel costs in full.

Bishton denied that any wrongdoing occurred. "When the bills came in, she paid them," he said. "She did it voluntarily."

Cotton said that the conservancy later decided to stop sponsoring such trips, but insisted the move had nothing to do with ethical questions related to Muscat. "Those trips were just not paying off," he said.

louis.sahagun@latimes.com

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