History Museum Billed Town For Employees’ Time; Marpe “Surprised” And “Concerned”

In late 2018, organizers announced the end of Westport’s First Night celebration.

Recognizing a need for family-friendly New Year’s Eve activities, the Westport Historical Society filled the breach. In just a matter of days, executive director Ramin Ganeshram and her staff organized “First Light.”

Performances, horse-drawn carriage rides, face painting, a digital caricaturist, a henna artist, food trucks, a bonfire — it was all there. And (despite the rain), it was greatly appreciated.

A true New England horse-drawn sleigh ride.

This year, the Avery Place institution — now called the Westport Museum for History & Culture — continued the new tradition.

This year’s First Light included horse-drawn carriages, a live band, short films,  tarot reader, henna tattoos, teen game night at Toquet Hall, stargazing with the Westport Astronomy Club, ballroom dance instruction — and that warm bonfire.

As with previous First Nights, and last year’s First Light, attendees wore buttons for admittance to all events. They cost $10 online, $15 on site.

Ganeshram gave credit to the town of Westport, for helping support the event.

That support includes police officers, fire fighters, logistics — and funding.

On December 11, Ganeshram asked for town assistance “from the fund formerly attributed to the First Night Celebrations.” She detailed “projected costs as they exist to-date for the First Light Festival on New Year’s Eve.”

The organization’s spreadsheet showed that the horse and carriage would cost $1,300. The band was $250, the tarot reader $200; Branson Hall rental $200; marketing materials and buttons $100.

There is also a line item that reads “(1630-2130 hours x at holiday rate (#82.50 per),” at a total cost of $1,213.

In addition, the Museum requested that the town reimburse half the cost of the salaries of 5 Museum employees. They were projected to spend anywhere from 30 to 80 hours each on First Light activities, at fees ranging from $11 to $25 per hour.

The employees work in several areas for the Museum, including programs, operations, marketing, administration and administrative support.

Four of the employees would be reimbursed by the town for half of their hours worked: $750, $600, $600 and $500. The administrative support staffer was projected to work 30 hours at $11 per hour, for a total of $330. The Museum requested $330 from the town for her salary, but confusingly also said they would contribute $330 to it.

The total reimbursement request to the town for Museum employees’ salaries was $2,780.

Executive director Ramin Ganeshram was listed as spending 20 hours on First Light, at $50 an hour. Her $1,000 was covered fully by the Museum.

The bonfire at Veterans Green. (Photo/Dan Woog)

The invoice was sent December 26, and received at Town Hall 2 days later. A check for the full amount requested — $5,943 — was issued to Westport Historical Society, Inc. on December 30.

I asked 1st Selectman Jim Marpe about the use of town funds to cover salaries of Museum employees. He responded:

For nearly 30 years, the Town of Westport co-sponsored “First Night,” a family-friendly, substance-free New Year’s Eve celebration that offered an array of musical and variety performers, kid-oriented activities, bonfires, carriage rides and even fireworks.

This event took place through a combination of volunteers under the volunteer leadership of enthusiastic residents such as Barbara Pearson-Rac and her husband Frank, the late Bill Meyer and Allen Bomes, donations from local business and fund-raising organizations, and also town funding in the range of $7,000.  First Night also sold admission badges to help fund their budget, and the town provided some of the venues for various events.

The First Night concept was very popular around Connecticut and New England for many years, but in recent years, Westport became one of the few towns to offer this NewYear’s Eve option. Unfortunately, it became virtually impossible to stage a fireworks show in the downtown area, and rising costs and the dwindling number of volunteers began to limit the variety of entertainment options.

Fireworks were once a First Night tradition.

While the Town budgeted $7,000 to support the 2018 to 2019 New Year’s Eve First Night (last year), it became clear in the early fall that we would not be able to conduct the First Night event as we had in prior years.

The then-named Westport Historical Society stepped forward and offered to produce a mini-version of First Night called First Light.  The town approved the use of a small portion of Veterans Green for a bonfire, and provided financial support to underwrite the carriage ride and other out-of-pocket costs for performers as well as Fire Department oversight of the bonfire activity.  It was (and is) our belief that a substance-free, family alternative to celebrate the new year is a good thing for Westport and its residents of all ages.

In anticipation of this year’s (2019 to 2020) New Year’s Eve, we budgeted another $6,000 in case the now-named Westport Museum of History & Culture decided to conduct another First Light event, which in fact they did with some expansion of their offerings and venues.

Face painting was a popular activity at this year’s First Light celebration. (Photo/Dan Woog)

It was always the intention of that money to cover the costs of outside services such as the carriage rides, musicians and other performers and marketing material which the director of finance and I approved.

I was surprised to learn in the past week that the Town’s support was also used to cover a portion of the salaries of several Museum employees.

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.

I have asked our director of finance to look into this matter immediately, and to determine the appropriate course of action regarding this payment.

As I noted earlier, I believe that events like First Night and First Light are good for our community and add to our reputation as a family friendly community, particularly when they are supported by volunteers and non-for-profit organizations such as the Museum.

The town has always been willing to consider financial or in-kind support of specific services for events that serve the whole community, but it has never been our intention to subsidize the salaries of individuals who work for those organizations.

34 responses to “History Museum Billed Town For Employees’ Time; Marpe “Surprised” And “Concerned”

  1. Eric William Buchroeder SHS ‘70

    Don’t be surprised to wake up one of these days to find the Wheeler House featured as the “Teardown Of The Day” in WestportNow.

  2. When are the resignations going to be tendered… this is now beyond general inappropriate.. action not reaction…

  3. Eric William Buchroeder SHS ‘70

    First Night First Light whatever you call it really isn’t an appropriate use of a historical archive’s funds. However laudable and enjoyable it may be, it’s a recreational activity and should be funded as such. This is an example of the “mission creep” that has resulted in the monstrosity that is the WMHS.

  4. I have been following the 06880 posts and comments re the Westport Museum, and now am compelled to say there there is a thread of viciousness here that disturbs me. This is a small town. People live here, raise their kids here, work here. Words hurt. Reputations can be damaged, feelings hurt in the court of public opinion when we may not know all the facts or both sides of the story. There are always two sides to every coin. I would hope that in these polarizing times we can try to work together to resolve these issues.

    • Peter Gambaccini

      The other of the two sides is quite welcome to speak its piece.

    • Eric William Buchroeder SHS ‘70

      Please don’t confuse “viciousness” with extreme pain/anguish/surprise/betrayal that has been expressed by, and on behalf of, its founding patrons.
      A community treasure is being destroyed deliberately and without regard for the consequences.I don’t live in Westport any more but have long admired the way the WHS has honored the town and its proud history. Until now.

  5. William Strittmatter

    Hey. Look at that. It is possible to put together a thoughtful public communication.

    The WHS should take note. It might even reduce the temperature of the discussion. Of course, if they did that, they might just bill Dan for it.

  6. Impressive that the town caught this oversight so quickly. With a $210 million a year budget, this amounts to .000028. There are very few towns in the United States that are run as well as Jim Marpe and our elected volunteers run Westport. It’s also important to continue to support this wonderful New Year’s event, to ensure it continues to delight Westport families and enhances our community for years to come.

  7. Rebecca Wolin

    The comment that Avi made that he was glad the town caught it so fast – my question would be how was this invoice even approved in the first place to be paid. Is it the policy in Westport to just pay invoices and look at the detail afterwards or not at all. Just a thought

    • Rebecca, when the Director of Finance paid an invoice for $260,000.00 more than the P&R Commission promised the public it would spend on the South Beach restroom & walkway project (by a spending limit resolution) he stated that he doesn’t investigate the validity of the invoices that he is given – he only pays what he is told to pay.

      That comment was witnessed by two Town residents.

      Perhaps that is why this happened. The question is who told him to pay it.

  8. I agree with Nell. For Heaven’s sakes this is now starting to become simple bullying. Yes, the WHS made mistakes and upset certain parties and I am sure that they will spend most of the first half of this year making amends and trying to soothe ruffled feathers. We all get the gist, now let’s leave it alone.

    • Why drink the kool aid? This is an undeniable problem that will continue to grow if nothing is done…

  9. Eric William Buchroeder SHS ‘70

    Absolutely support 1st Night/Light and be thankful for it. But please, for my benefit, articulate how/why it needs to be sponsored by an organization that evidently is so pressed for funds that it is seeking outside sources that (and this is not meant to be “vicious”) have nothing to offer the WMHC but money. I don’t think any of the “protesters” would have any issues with the Offutt money if it weren’t coordinated with the efforts of leadership team that probably thinks Staples High School was endowed by an office supply company headquartered in Framingham MA.

  10. For better or worse, past controversies of this nature in CT seemed to have ended with the opinion that “the provision of public entertainment” is “not considered a proper role of government”. That being said, I think the question could be asked whether some other entity besides the Town could step in to help support this New Years event going forward.

    As an aside, I recall that the town’s policy on the use of town-owned property (such as Veterans Green) states that the net proceeds of any event must go to charity. If there actually were any net proceeds in this case, where did they go?

  11. Is it possible to have/insist that they become a non-profit so there is more transparency?
    Would this help?

    • Jan – they are (or purport to be) a non-profit charitable organization; actually the WHS was and still is (see my post below)

  12. In response to Nell and Deb: what Dan Woog has done via his series of stories has been an example of local journalism at its best—and I’m not saying this because Dan and I are longtime friends going back to our Staples soccer days.

    The WMHC has had ample opportunity to speak to him since the first story appeared but has chosen not to. Dan, as I noted in a prior comment, has frequently publicized and promoted the WMHC and former WHS—including partnering with them just over a year ago in doing a series on vintage items—just as he has helped publicize the happenings connected to other local cultural groups.

    So why the WMHC would now, in essence, avoid dealing with Dan and fail to provide whatever explanations they might have is something I don’t understand.

    I feel that Dan’s stories have legitimately exposed some important issues. I was a member until recently—my membership expired in December and I hadn’t gotten around to renewing—and I had zero knowledge of the problems that were happening behind the scenes.

    And I have made efforts to be supportive of the new administration. For example, I submitted material online from California for the migrants and immigrants exhibit, which Ramin was appreciative of and, to the best of my knowledge, the material was included in the exhibit.

    I also offered a fundraising idea to Ramin this past summer re the WMHC jointly doing a possible book with the Library using the library‘s POD machine and, again, Ramin was appreciative.

    So it’s not as if I have been in opposition to the new administration; to the contrary, I was only hoping they would succeed.

    But now having been enlightened by Dan’s series of stories—including the guest pieces by former WHS officers—it is clear that Ramin and Sara have work to do to address certain issues; and I think an excellent starting point would be figuring out a solution to the renaming of the Sheffer Gallery (such as possibly a joint naming of the space).

    • Fred I completely agree with you both about Dan and that this series on the WHS is an example of local journalism at its best. I hope that Dan is recognized for it when it comes time for this years awards for excellence in journalism in “hyperlocal” news coverage by the CT Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. This series deserves it. Good job Dan and keep it up!

      • Thanks, John and Fred, for your kind comments. This is a story about an important Westport institution, one that has touched (and continues to touch) nearly every Westporter. It is about this town’s past, present and future. I appreciate the help of many readers — they are integral to my posts. And, of course, the Westport Museum for History & Culture is welcome to weigh in at any time, via public posts or private email (dwoog@optonline.net). I have not heard from anyone there — not even off the record — since my first story nine days ago.

        • As a longtime journalist, I’ll add to the kudos for Dan’s exemplary work on this story, which indeed is local journalism at its finest—especially when the WHS scandal seems to be being ignored by.other local media (and when will The New York Times weigh in?). Please keep digging on this important Westport story.

  13. A little more info about the Westport Historical Society, doing business as the Westport Museum for History and Culture –

    You read that right – when I was trying to pull up the WM’s 501(c)(3) return (assuming they were such a charitable org) I discovered they were not registered as such; I also saw that the Westport Historical Society remains registered as a 501(c)(3) tax exempt organization (but THEY have not filed their Form 990 for 2018 yet, which makes it overdue).

    I also could not find the “Westport Museum for History and Culture” on the State of CT’s business entity list (which is searchable). I do see the “Westport Historical Society Inc.” remains an active corporation, although their 2019 filing was due in March, 2019 and is overdue. Given this, on a hunch, I checked the “doing business as” filings with the Town Clerk, and see a d/b/a registered for “Westport Historical Society doing business as the Westport Museum for History and Culture” on August 21, 2019.

    So, the accurate way to describe this organization is the “Westport Historical Society Inc. doing business as the Westport Museum for History and Culture”

    I’m not saying there is anything wrong with that per se.

    But it means the corporate (legal) entity known as “Westport Historical Society” still very much exists, and regardless of what the WM website says, the officers of THAT entity, and BoD of that entity, are still very much in power. It could be the case that the names listed on the WM site accurately reflects the current officers and legitimately elected BoD of the WHS. I can only go by what I see reported on the CT legal entity register as of their last filed report in 2018: Ramin Ganeshram – exec director, Robert Mitchell – president, Patricia Wentworth – treasurer, Jay Dirnberger – Chair of Finance Committee. Also, the by-laws of the WHS would still control, from a corporate governance standpoint. They are the boss; the organization known as the WM, formed as a d/b/a, is not the one in power.

    It might be the case that the WM is taking steps to rename the WHS and preserve their status as a 501(c)(3). But their change of direction – to a museum and cultural org – will probably mean a new 501(c)(3) filing is required. They do seem to be behind on their 2018 federal tax return and their March 2019 corporate filings with CT.

    As one who has set up and run 501(c)(3)s, I can also point out that the WM’s website does not contain the proper “we are a 501(c)(3)” legend anywhere, which is out of compliance for such orgs. I suspect that, if you were to make a charitable contribution to the WM and got the (required) 501(c)(3) receipt, it would refer to the WHS and their tax ID number.

    • Thank you Jack! That is EXACTLY where I was going with my comment-
      since I have not lived in Westport for several years, I was able to take a step back and observe… great research…
      Now everyone has a just cause to ACT!!

    • It looks like it is time to take the bull by the horns and take your museum back. There appears to be many people that would happily get involved in the well being and healthy future of the museum. Sometime it takes something glaring such as this is in order to get involved and look closely at who is at the helm.
      Great job everyone! I wish I still lived there. I believe that you have all turned a corner with this observation!!

    • The question is who is going to take charge? Right now we probably have a bystander effect with lots of people upset and seeing something wrong but no one stepping up to the plate as far as I have read.

  14. Juliana Sloane Fulbright

    Something is very wrong here. It sounds like a scam that people are doing all over now. We have to somehow get our museum back! I can’t believe she charged almost $6,000 for a few hours!!

  15. Michael Pettee

    I grew up in Westport, and I now live in Minnesota. I have an agency here which produces events and related communications. I also have with long experience with non-profit organizations, and was Managing Director of a performing arts organization for many years, and also including organizations which have gone through significant internal and external changes. With that background, I have been trying to decipher this WHS puzzle absent any response from the staff or the organization other than what is on their website, blog and Instagram posts. I will assume the intentions of staff and board are honorable. But still, there is no way a new strategic plan would suggest turning the organization’s back on its legacy base.

    There has been almost 100% turnover in the board of directors over the last year, and its impressive list of advisory board (of which Dan was an honorary member) is no longer even listed. Dan, were you all dismissed? Did much of the board resign? As David pointed out yesterday, the board does have a fiduciary responsibility to the state and community. What about the staff? I could imagine there might be something of a “we are defending from the bunker” attitude from the 7-8 staff members. Or have they resigned? Is the entire staff forbidden from commenting?

    Clearly, some pieces are missing from this puzzle.

    PS: Nothing in the outline of First Night expenses is seems unreasonable to me, as long as it aligns with the town’s initial purchase plan or agreement. The noted rates and amounts are on the low end of industry standards. And also, if I am understanding the roles correctly, a “payables department” should not be expected to investigate every invoice, rather their job is to efficiently process payments. The responsibility for due diligence would rightly go to the person approving and accepting the provided materials or services to be sure they are aligned with the initial purchase plan or agreement, and before it is forwarded for payment. Example: the payables department can not be expected to ensure that the snowplow the town purchased is as-ordered and aligned with its purchase agreement.

    • I have no idea if I was dismissed. I was on the advisory board; then I was off; then the entire advisory board list disappeared from the website. The board has changed significantly too, but no one seems to be talking. That’s all I know on that front!

      • Eric William Buchroeder SHS ‘70

        Dan, whether dismissed, forgotten, misplaced or ignored I can’t for the life of me figure out what they were trying to do with you, the Sheffers or any of the long list of WHS patrons. You may be the most influential wordsmith/author/journalist in Westport, treated fairly you could have been their best “face man” of what they’re trying to do (whatever that is). They are lucky that you haven’t a vindictive bone in your body.

        • Jay Walshon MD

          It is unfortunate that in his statement Mr. Marpe feigned surprise, dismay and disapproval that public funds were utilized to compensate Museum employees.

          For anyone interested in the facts, an examination of the invoice that includes the $2,780 payments to the Westport Museum for History and Culture employees using Town taxpayer funds clearly documents that these payments were known and approved by both Mr. Marpe and Finance Director Gary Conrad on December 20th.

          In addition, a December 20 email to both Mr. Conrad and Mr. Marpe from the Museum ditector clearly delineated a request for Town funds to compensate Museum employees – including the approval to double pay Catherine Graham.

    • Chris Van Genderen

      Thanks for the sound input.

  16. Susan Eastman

    The solicitation letter the Westport Museum sent in November 2019 states “Westport Museum for History and Culture is a nonprofit organization as described in Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code.” I have not yet received my receipt, but am interested to see what it will say when it comes.

    • please report, but you know my prediction. btw, you need their tax ID # to properly take the deduction on your return

  17. “As I noted earlier, I believe that events like First Night and First Light are good for our community and add to our reputation as a family friendly community, particularly when they are supported by volunteers and non-for-profit organizations such as the Museum.”

    I think Marpe may be unclear on how a “Non-for-profit” business operates. It’s not a charity, and its employees don’t work for free. I can see how a miscommunication might happen, and how it could be assumed that the WHS would consider this sort of activity within its mission and not charge back employees’ time. But in this context, “non-for-profit organizations” are more like other town businesses than like individual volunteers.