Land­marks now on no­tice to fix things

Land­marks quickly rushed out a state­ment ac­cept­ing the re­port and com­mit­ting to “im­me­di­ately ini­ti­ate any rec­om­mended pro­ce­dural and ad­min­is­tra­tive changes con­tained in the re­view.” That’s a good sign.

The Day - - OPINION -

The Of­fice of the At­tor­ney Gen­eral struck a good bal­ance by put­ting Con­necti­cut Land­marks on no­tice that they have to do a bet­ter job main­tain­ing the his­toric prop­er­ties and en­dow­ments en­trusted to them, while not be­ing so heavy handed as to in­vite lit­i­ga­tion that could fur­ther drain the non­profit group’s re­sources.

The re­port, re­leased on Jan. 4 in the fi­nals days of At­tor­ney Gen­eral Ge­orge Jepsen’s eight years in of­fice, is con­sis­tent with the phi­los­o­phy that of­fice fol­lowed dur­ing his time in charge. Far less liti­gious and pub­licly con­tentious than his pre­de­ces­sor — now U.S. Sen. Richard Blu­men­thal — Jepsen would, if pos­si­ble, rather see a mat­ter set­tled than dragged out in lengthy lit­i­ga­tion.

And though Jepsen re­cused him­self from this re­view — he is friends with peo­ple at Land­marks and once hosted a fundraiser at his home — it is in keep­ing with the tone he set for the of­fice.

The re­port by Deputy At­tor­ney Gen­eral Perry Zinn Rowthorn makes clear that Land­marks did a poor job of mon­i­tor­ing main­te­nance is­sues at some of its his­toric prop­er­ties and in a cou­ple of cases used a loosey-goosey in­ter­pre­ta­tion of the rules gov­ern­ing the char­i­ta­ble gifts that were be­queathed to it for care of the prop­er­ties, but did not mis­ap­pro­pri­ate funds.

Charged by state law with rep­re­sent­ing “the pub­lic in­ter­est in the pro­tec­tion of any gifts, lega­cies or de­vises in­tended for pub­lic or char­i­ta­ble pur­poses,” the at­tor­ney gen­eral’s of­fice could have acted with a heav­ier hand. It could have gone to court to try to wrest con­trol of the or­ga­ni­za­tion and turn it over to new lead­er­ship, or tried to or­der Land­marks how and where to di­rect its funds, or in some other fash­ion sought a court­backed penalty.

Such moves would have been head­line grab­bing, we sus­pect, but as for mak­ing sure the group’s re­sources were used for their proper preser­va­tion pur­pose, such an ap­proach would have missed the mark. Be­cause the re­sult in that case would have al­most cer­tainly been lit­i­ga­tion and we all know where the money goes when that hap­pens.

In­stead its con­clu­sions pro­vide a road map and a warn­ing.

Con­necti­cut Land­marks must con­tinue its work on Forge Farm in Ston­ing­ton — a prop­erty it con­sid­ered di­vest­ing in 2017 — so that it is rep­re­sen­ta­tive of early Amer­ica ar­chi­tec­ture, con­sis­tent with the in­tent of the donor in 1983, the late Vir­ginia Berry. And it has the money to do so, the re­view con­cluded.

The or­ga­ni­za­tion should “con­tinue all ren­o­va­tion, de­vel­op­ment, and cat­a­loging ac­tiv­ity at the Palmer-Warner Prop­erty with the goal of fully de­vel­op­ing the prop­erty to pre­serve its his­toric char­ac­ter and to pro­vide ac­cess to the pub­lic.” Hereto­fore, the or­ga­ni­za­tion has been woe­fully neg­li­gent in main­tain­ing the 18th-cen­tury house at 307 E. Town St. in East Had­dam.

Fur­ther, Land­marks is asked to make sure all its prop­er­ties are suf­fi­ciently main­tained and pro­tected from the el­e­ments. It should set up an in­spec­tion sched­ule and des­ig­nate an in­spec­tor to reg­u­larly re­port to the Board of Trustees.

The re­port also rec­om­mends Land­marks de­velop re­la­tion­ships with lo­cal his­tor­i­cal preser­va­tion so­ci­eties, part­ner­ships it has avoided to the detri­ment of the prop­er­ties in its pro­tec­tion.

And here is the kicker. The Of­fice of the At­tor­ney Gen­eral will keep the in­quiry open. This means if Land­marks does not shape up, the new sher­iff in town — At­tor­ney Gen­eral Wil­liam Tong — could come down much harder. That’s called an in­cen­tive.

Land­marks last week quickly rushed out a state­ment ac­cept­ing the re­port and com­mit­ting to “im­me­di­ately ini­ti­ate any rec­om­mended pro­ce­dural and ad­min­is­tra­tive changes con­tained in the re­view.” That’s called a good sign.

For what­ever rea­son, the deputy at­tor­ney gen­eral ap­peared too will­ing to ac­cept Land­marks’ ex­cuses for its fail­ures, but in the end the re­sult was the right one.

We can­not con­clude this topic with­out ac­knowl­edg­ing the ag­gres­sive re­port­ing of Day colum­nist David Collins. His ef­forts un­cov­ered the fail­ures of Land­marks to do its job at mul­ti­ple prop­er­ties. With­out that re­port­ing it is doubt­ful there would have been a re­view or a plan of ac­tion.

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