York County sued the Culture and Heritage Foundation late Friday afternoon, saying the non-profit organization that supports county museums has been “uncooperative,” refuses to release information about donated money and land, and violated its own bylaws by formally changing its mission last year.
Foundation Chairman Bill Easley described the county’s decision to sue as “disappointing” and “baffling” in a written statement submitted to the Herald Friday night.
“We are dismayed by the county government’s retreat from its earlier position seeking settlement of issues related to (the foundation) to an adversarial position resulting in this lawsuit,” he wrote.
“The decision to waste large sums of taxpayer money suing a private organization run by volunteer donors who have promised in writing to give the county money is as disappointing as it is baffling.”
Taking the case to court could cost the county as much as $250,000, Councilman Bump Roddey said earlier this week.
The County Council voted unanimously on Tuesday night after a three-hour, closed-door meeting to send a settlement agreement to the foundation with a deadline of Friday to accept or face a lawsuit.
At the heart of the issue is a statement of purpose change the foundation made last May, indicating it intends to use its fundraising activities to support other groups or organizations in South Carolina. Before, the foundation only supported York County’s museums.
The foundation filed the change with the Secretary of State’s Office on May 1, 2012, and notified county leaders of the amendment on March 8, 2013.
York County’s lawsuit states that the foundation can’t, according to its bylaws, change its mission except in circumstances beyond its control, which was not the case with the 2012 change, the county alleges.
To challenge the mission change in court, the county needed to sue by May 2, 2013, according to a written statement submitted to The Herald by Rock Hill attorney Jim Sheedy, who represents the foundation.
The two sides entered a “tolling agreement,” according to the foundation’s statement, which extended the county’s deadline to sue until June 29 if settlement terms could not be reached.
After Tuesday’s County Council vote, the foundation received new settlement terms on Wednesday night in a counter-proposal.
Some of the requests were items the foundation was willing to sign on to, according to its statement.
Sheedy suggested to the county’s attorney that the timeframe of the “tolling agreement” be extended in order to allow for the county and the foundation to work on a compromise, according to the statement.
Columbia attorney Brian Autry is listed on York County’s lawsuit as its legal counsel. York County’s appointed attorney is Michael Kendree, who has an office in York.
Kendree did not return phone calls or an e-mail from the Herald on Friday.
Autry said he would not comment without Kendree’s permission to answer questions.
The foundation’s statement said the “county attorney” called Sheedy on Friday morning to say negotiations would not continue between York County and the foundation.
Easley then reached out to County Council Chairman Britt Blackwell to offer an extension of the negotiation period, but the offer was not accepted.
Easley’s call came too late, Blackwell said, pointing out that the foundation chairman was invited to attend the council’s executive session on Tuesday night but didn’t show up.
When Easley called on Friday afternoon, Blackwell was traveling to the beach, he told The Herald.
Blackwell told Easley that he couldn’t single-handedly stop the lawsuit from being filed because the council had already voted on Tuesday to sue if its settlement proposal wasn’t accepted.
The lawsuit “hopefully won’t go far,” Blackwell said, adding that he’d like to continue negotiations between the museum commission, its foundation and York County officials.
The county’s lawsuit alleges that the county’s museum commission, the governing body for the county’s museum system, was left out of discussions regarding the foundation’s major decisions.
County leaders are demanding an accounting of the foundation’s assets and spending records. In the past, the foundation has “stonewalled” the county’s requests for such records, according to the lawsuit.
York County wants a judge to issue an injunction preventing the organization from distributing money or land donated before May 2012 for any purpose other than to support its museums.
Easley has said all money raised prior to the foundation’s May 2012 mission change will be used for the museum’s sole benefit.
If money or assets designated for museums has been used for any purpose but supporting museums, York County wants the foundation to be found guilty of breach of trust, according to its suit.
The county also wants 340 acres of donated land along the Catawba River in the Fort Mill area to be secured in a charitable trust for the sole benefit of York County museums.
The land--located near Interstate 77 and Sutton Road--was donated in 1998 by Jane Spratt McColl for the museum system’s benefit.
A failed development plan for the land left the foundation owing $3.8 million to a former real estate partner.
The foundation sold some of the land to the Carolinas Healthcare System and the Fort Mill School District in order to pay its debt.
Blackwell said the battle over the land and the foundation’s mission change didn’t have to end up in court but the foundation’s leaders came to the county at the “eleventh hour” looking for true compromise before being sued.
“But it doesn’t mean we can’t still get the two sides together,” he said.
“They should sit down and be straight forward and not shade the truth or imply things that aren’t true. And, just have a sincere, amiable attitude about sitting down and we’ll work for a fair solution.”
Anna Douglas • 803-329-4068