California military museum closes amid disputes

There’s little to see through the storefront windows that line the California State Military Museum, tucked away on an edge of Old Sacramento.

What was once a gift shop has been cleared of all merchandise and trinkets. During normal business hours, visitors who want to attend its exhibits on California’s military involvement from the Civil War to Iraq find only a locked door and a “CLOSED” sign.

With little notice or fanfare, the museum shut its doors in March, amid a turf war between the nonprofit foundation that operates it and the California Military Department that oversees it. The conflict, in addition to state budget constraints, left the museum unable to stay afloat.

“It’s a shame,” said retired Maj. Gen. Robert Thrasher, who ran the department from 1987 to 1992, after hearing the museum had closed. “It’s kind of like the Smithsonian of Sacramento – for the military.”

Mounting tension between the two parties reached a tipping point last fall when the Military Department sued the foundation for claiming to own approximately 90 percent of the artifacts and for interfering with a state audit. In court documents, the California State Military Museum Foundation argues that a majority of artifacts were donated to the foundation and that its employees never prevented an inspection.

The ongoing litigation, in the courts since September, stems from a larger disagreement about who should control the museum. For years, state law gave the nonprofit authority to operate the museum even as savings from the Military Department and a budget appropriation made up a large part of its funding.

“The fact that the California military museum foundation was referred to directly in state law is very unusual and unorthodox, and quite frankly, improper,” said Lt. Col. Darrin Bender, chief of state policy and liaison for the department.

Now, the Military Department has moved to gain control, seeking ownership in court of a donated collection that includes machine guns and anti-tank weapons. It argues that the donations were given to the public.

A lawyer for the nonprofit could not comment on the lawsuit, but a statement the foundation released in April casts the case as “predatory in nature and designed to put the foundation out of business.”

“The Military Department allegations against the museum foundation are totally without merit and constitute a malicious abuse of the judicial process,” the statement said, adding that the current structure was created to protect the museum from changes in department leadership.

The Military Department, however, points to signing statements issued by Govs. Gray Davis and Arnold Schwarzenegger when they approved measures on the museum in 2002 and 2004, respectively. Both governors expressed concern that the arrangement stripped the adjutant general who runs the Military Department from seeing that the “museum and any appropriated funding are properly administered.”

That concern became a moot point on Friday, when the nonprofit lost its mandate to run the museum. A measure approved alongside the state budget and signed by Gov. Jerry Brown on Friday allows the state to assert control, pushing the foundation into a marginal role, if any at all.

The legislation deletes all reference to the foundation. In its place, it says the department can enter into operating agreements with “nonprofit historical foundations, military museums, historical societies or other entities to conduct museum activities.”

The new law does not forbid a partnership with the foundation, Bender said, but would make such an agreement a “superior, subordinate” relationship rather than the “peer-to-peer” relationship that exists now.

“We had no leverage,” Bender said of the old system. “We had no authority, we had no ability to use any other entity. They essentially had full authority to operate autonomously using state funds.”

Court documents filed by the foundation dispute this portrayal, arguing that the two sides had “worked cooperatively” in the past.

“That has been the status quo,” the filing says. “Only since the recent appointment of (the) current administration has a power struggle arisen between the parties.”

In the past decade, the foundation has received state funds from two sources. One was an appropriation of $100,000. A second revenue source came from quarterly savings in the Military Department’s own budget.

For eight years ending in 2011-12, the department gave the museum an average $170,000 a year, Finance Department spokesman H.D. Palmer said in an email. In 2012-13, it provided about $150,000. Tax filings show the foundation spent an average $374,000 annually from fiscal years 2008-09 to 2011-12.

Last year, funds from the Military Department stopped and the museum was forced to temporarily “close its doors and lay off its employees,” according to its April statement. Bender said the department ceased funding for two reasons – a smaller budget and a feeling that the department had no oversight over the funds.

Three months after it closed, the museum remains shut down, and its future is still uncertain. When it eventually reopens under state control, Bender said, the department will need to evaluate how to move forward.

First, the lawsuit needs to be settled. Neither side could comment on the legal aspects of the case, but Bender said a timeline for restarting the museum is “dependent” on resolving the suit.

The question in the complaint boils down to whether the foundation, as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, owns the artifacts that have been donated to the museum or whether they belong to the state.

If the judge rules that the foundation owns the donated items, it could place the Military Department in an awkward position. In such a case, the department would have operational control, under the newly worded law, but own only a sliver of its artifacts.

Under that scenario, “we are going to have to re-establish from scratch,” Bender said.

In the meantime, having the museum closed does a disservice to the public, said Roxanne Yonn, who serves as executive director and curator of the Aerospace Museum of California, which partners with the military museum on donations.

“It takes away history that we would like to see showcased,” Yonn said. “It would be a shame to not have it available to the public to showcase in the capital city.”