Committee pushes for more oversight following museum funds dispute

The Westport Museum for History and Culture. Taken Jan. 29. 2020 in Westport, Conn.

The Westport Museum for History and Culture. Taken Jan. 29. 2020 in Westport, Conn.

DJ Simmons/Hearst Connecticut Media

WESTPORT — A funding dispute between the Westport Museum of History and Culture and the town has led officials to review some of the smaller items in this year’s budget with a keen eye.

On Wednesday, the Representative Town Meeting’s Library, Museum, and Arts Committee touched upon the most recent controversy while reviewing concerns that arose last year after the town paid the museum $7,500 for record storage.

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Committee members questioned if similar arts-related budget items had been approved in the past.

“I think it’s fair to say they didn’t get a lot of scrutiny,” First Selectman Jim Marpe said, noting the museum would no longer receive funds for record storage as the data can be backed up in digital form.

Committee Chair Amy Kaplan said during her time on the committee, the members had spent more time reviewing the library and Earthplace’s budgets versus smaller art expenditures.

“Even though those are small amounts in the overall budget, they are really clearly in the purview of this committee,” she said. “I thought it would be a good idea to spend time looking at what those expenditures are in our capacity of oversight.”

The museum came under scrutiny again this past week, when it was discovered town funds were mistakenly used to pay museum staff for work done during the First Light celebration in December. The town is looking to recoup the money given to museum staff, with Marpe arguing it was never the intention to pay the salaries of non-town employees.

Marpe also noted the First Light line item would no longer be in the budget, leaving the future of the event unclear. He added while the town sees value in family-friendly events like First Night it was never the intention to pay non-town employee’s salaries.

Still, Kaplan said there could be value in helping organizations provide more than specific services. She suggested the town could support the arts by contributing to various organizations’ budget for smaller events.

“I don’t think it’s a conflict there,” Kaplan said. “Many municipalities support those types of things with a general grant to organizations.”

John Suggs, a Westport resident, said organizations receiving funds in the budget should appear before the committee moving forward.

“Whether they keep it in miscellaneous or not, you have a duty and obligation to be told about it,” Suggs said.

Though the saga over museum funds has seemingly ended for the time being, RTM member Dick Lowenstein floated the idea of a town historian.

“It could be a way to focus on the history of the town,” he said.