First in a multi-part investigation
Documents, emails and eye-witness interviews reveal the independent review of a Broward children’s museum was short circuited by intimidation, undue influence and threats by Broward County government officials. In July 2014, following a new lease agreement with Young At Art (YAA), Broward County issued a request for letters of interest (RLI) for an independent consultant to “provide strategic planning coordination for YAA and to lead and develop a new business, fundraising, and strategic plan….” The plan would focus upon organizational identity/increased visibility, a model for financial stability and a plan to strengthen YAA fundraising efforts.
In October 2014, the Broward County selection committee met to rank the six respondents to the RLI. The members of the committee were Skye Patrick, director of Broward Libraries, Peg Buchan, assistant director of Port Everglades and Mindy Shrago, the executive director of YAA. The committee unanimously ranked ArtsMarket, Inc. number one. Based in Bozeman, Montana, ArtsMarket, Inc. has a long track record of consulting local governments about museums and other cultural entities.
In her RLI application, Louise Stevens, founder of ArtsMarket, Inc., claimed she was “a nationally recognized planner and researcher specializing in the arts, with extensive experience in business planning for museums including youth museums.” Since 1982, Stevens stated, ArtsMarket “has lead over 300 independent business evaluations of nonprofit arts organizations on behalf of government funders/agencies and foundations.” Stevens believed she could perform her independent review of YAA for just $51,900 in taxpayer dollars.
However, Stevens was about to learn things rarely go smoothly in Broward County.
According to the Broward County purchasing department, officials hoped to have a finalized contract with the consulant just 45 days of it awarded the RLI. The County hoped the YAA independent review would be completed by December 2014. But in emails obtained by REDBROWARD, Louise Stevens made it perfectly clear that schedule was no longer in play.
On December 19, 2014, Stevens emailed an update to Hilary Winiger, the YAA grants administrator. Stevens wrote, “Just to keep all of you in the loop…we have still not received a signed contract. Two days ago, the county administrator required a completely revised signature page after we Fedex’ed everything they required last week.” Stevens claimed a county purchasing agent admitted he had done multi-million dollar contracts that were easier than this agreement.
Stevens stated her experience with Broward County was unlike anything in many years dealing with local governments. “Heaven knows in our 32 years we have NEVER been put through a legal examination wringer like this,” she wrote. “Including having to purchase so much extra insurance for the law suits the county expects will be filed against us for our work on this project. (That’s what they told us!)”
On December 22, Winiger asked Stevens about the lawsuit threat. “One more thing, You mentioned in a previous email having to purchase extra insurance for the law suits.” Winiger wrote. “I’m confused. Who do they think will sue your company and for what reason?”
Three hours later, Stevens responded, “On the insurance front…we had to take out an extraordinarily high level of E and O insurance in addition to what we already carry. The County’s risk assessment team views our work on this as very high risk.”
Later in the same email, Stevens explains she believes the very high risk is posed by the County itself. She wrote, “Our only take away after negotiating (and losing) re the ridiculous insurance levels is that the County plans to sue us if the museum doesn’t turn around the way we say it should in the plan.” Stevens said she will “error on the side of conservative projections with them at all times so that YAA will exceed my projections.”
Stevens ends with the following: “I am thinking that they have no idea what running a museum entails and that this is as much a learning project for them as anything.”
Stevens would soon learn that while County officials may be novices at museum issues, they are skilled at issuing not-so-subtle professional threats.