Dispute over funds places Westport museum under scrutiny
WESTPORT — A reimbursement dispute between the town and the Westport Museum of History and Culture has placed the nonprofit under the microscope this week.
Finance Director Gary Conrad said the town is seeking a refund for money it paid to museum staff for hosting the second annual First Light celebration in December, which was apparently granted in error.
“It was never our intent to subsidize the costs of non-town employees, and I’m concerned about the potential inappropriate use of town funds for this purpose,” First Selectman Jim Marpe told news blog 06880.
The revelation that payments had been made to museum staff, seemingly unbeknownst to Marpe, sparked controversy among many Westporters.
However, Museum Executive Director Ramin Ganeshram said there was never an intention to deceive the town, adding she and the first selectman had several previous conversations outlining cost-sharing for the event. A funding request was also sent to the town that illustrated the shared costs.
“I put all of our staff hours for this and I included all costs we would incur and pay for, as well as what we were asking the town to pay for,” Ganeshram said.
A copy of the funding request, obtained by the Westport News, shows an even split of costs between the town and museum, with the town paying half the costs for hours worked by museum staff — a total of $2,450. Ganeshram’s hours worked were fully covered by the museum.
Conrad said the funds came from the $7,000 budgeted for First Night in the 2019-20 town budget. He confirmed seeing the funding request outlining specific staff costs, but said he did not know that was a problem at the time.
“I was not aware the agreement was not to pay their staff. I was not privy to that,” Conrad said. “I presumed when I got something from their director, everything was laid out. ... We’re now sending a request for them to refund the town for the hours paid.”
Ganeshram claimed when Marpe first contacted the museum about continuing the family-friendly New Year’s Eve tradition, she was clear there would have to be cost sharing.
“I told him we would be happy to do it, but we would need support,” she recalled. “It’s not a mission-based item for us, and I couldn’t pay my staff to do non-museum work.”
Although he ultimately authorized the total payment, Marpe said he did not see the detailed funding request. Once it was brought to his attention, he realized the mistake.
“People may differ in their recollection of discussion, but I was always of the belief the town would provide funds for the cost of certain activities,” Marpe said this week.
The controversy marks a difficult month for the museum, which received heavy backlash for renaming the Sheffer Gallery as the Daniel E. Offutt III Exhibition Hall, after a recent contributor.
Fierce criticism over the allegation of misused funds alongside name changes caused Marpe to address the recent events at Sunday’s State of the Town. While comparing some comments to cyberbullying, he expressed concern for the tone of the conversation.
For Ganeshram and her staff, the tone has taken a turn for the worse.
“My staff and myself have been personally harassed over this,” she said. “We’ve received phone calls bordering on threatening.”
The museum also lost money due to First Light costs coming in higher than predicted, she said, adding there’s sometimes a misunderstanding the museum is a town organization or funded by the town.
“Even when we’ve received money from the town, it wasn’t funding,” Ganeshram said. “It was very specifically for services rendered on behalf of the town.”
The Representative Town Meeting’s Library, Museum and Arts Committee will meet on Wednesday to discuss the museum and arts funding.