County board lowers boom on historical society spending

It’s almost as unusual as a tornado in Minnesota in December (maybe even more so). Namely, government holding a perennial recipient of hundreds of thousands of tax dollars publicly accountable, rather than continuing to issue the proverbial blank check every year at budget time.

There’s evidently been simmering tension between the St. Louis County Board and the County Historical Society for a while. But it finally came to a head at a recent meeting to approve the 2022 county budget when the chair went nuclear on its second-largest non-profit recipient of taxpayer funding, according to the Duluth News Tribune.

The board put the St. Louis County Historical Society on notice Tuesday in Duluth, giving the Depot-based organization one year to fall in line or risk organizational upheaval.

“It’s got to stop; they’ve got to do it differently,” said Commissioner Frank Jewell, representing the downtown Duluth area. “We’re giving them way too much money, and we don’t even know what they use the money for because their budget is really opaque.”

The historical society benefits from nearly $450,000 in taxpayer largesse each year. But funding for the nonprofit, dubbed “the history people,” could be history unless things change. The St. Louis County Board voted unanimously to release half of the budgeted funds to the group for now, making the other six months of funding contingent on proof of performance.

Jewell leveled a lengthy case against the historical society, saying it was resistant to defending its budgets and frequently changed major details when it came time to finalize things. For instance, he noted the historical society eliminated storage costs from its most recent budget, despite having major issues with space for artifacts and needing more storage.

Jewell also charged the historical society with going behind the back of Depot director Mary Tennis, trying to undermine her with other Depot tenants.

“It is simply unacceptable,” Jewell said, later adding, “I’m not going to let them use money the way they see fit and try and stab us in the back at the same time.”

The leader of the St. Louis County Historical Society expressed shock at the criticism levelled by the board.

JoAnne Coombe, executive director of the Historical Society, told the News Tribune she was “traumatized” by the public rebuke.

“Everything Commissioner Jewell seeks, he is already provided,” Coombe said. “I’m really taken aback and I’m really surprised by the assertions.”

Coombe denied having anything other than a good working relationship with Tennis.

“I feel like I get along well with her,” she said.

Unless things change, however, the St. Louis County Historical Society faces the prospect of outside management and upheaval in staff and operations.

Jewell said he’d be open to more drastic action if the disharmony between the historical society and county leadership doesn’t change. He wondered aloud about asking other groups to run the historical society, and requesting the Minnesota Historical Society pull the credentials of the St. Louis County Historical Society.

“That is an interesting notion if they can’t get their act together,” Jewell said. “They have this next year — the first six months to show they can treat it (right), and the second six months to really get in a good place. We hold the cards to ask the Minnesota Historical Society to de-designate them and find someone new to run it.”

The county board’s heightened oversight could also pay dividends with other recipients of taxpayer funding through increased transparency and fiscal responsibility.