Much ado about the mansion
Bidwell Mansion Association’s future is uncertain after fallout with the state
Although last Saturday’s Run for Bidwell Mansion carried community fundraising efforts across the proverbial finish line—a $100,000 goal to protect the landmark from closing its doors in the next year—mansion advocates remain concerned about the building’s future in light of the California State Park Commission’s decision to terminate its cooperative agreement with the Bidwell Mansion Association.
The break is due to a 2001 clerical error resulting in a lapse in the BMA’s nonprofit status and stipulations in its contract with the state that their partnership be terminated in such an event. The BMA received a 90-day termination letter last November that took effect in February, when it also received a letter demanding the transfer of all BMA funds—which BMA President Kay Brandt estimated at around $140,000—to the Bidwell Bar Association, another nonprofit organization partnered with State Parks.
The BMA contends that state officials said the problem was fixable and the association took the necessary measures to make it right.
“As soon as we were notified, we started working on the problem,” Brandt said. “We made several calls and sent letters of inquiry to the IRS about how to fix it. We finally involved [Congressman] Wally Herger’s office and a taxpayer advocate.
“In February, we were notified by the IRS that the error had been fixed, all tax forms had been corrected and we were restored retroactively, but the state decided to continue with terminating the BMA as their cooperating organization.”
The money in question is different than the $100,000-plus raised in the run and other events organized by the Bidwell Mansion Community Project—a separate organization—though the BMA recently donated $25,000 earmarked to continue educational programs at the mansion (which is a state historic park).
Brandt explained the BMA was formed in 1983 when two earlier organizations—the Bidwell Mansion Restoration Association and Bidwell Mansion Cooperating Association—merged and reorganized into one entity. In all of its incarnations, the BMA has contributed to the preservation and restoration of the mansion since 1956, with the BMRA spearheading the building’s establishment as a state park in 1964.
Brandt said original funding for what would eventually be known as the BMA came from a trust established by the late Dorothy Hill, an anthropologist and founding member of the BMRA. She said the money has contributed to mansion-improvement projects and that the nonprofit has always operated responsibly and openly.
“These are all charitable donations we feel the public has entrusted us with for the preservation, restoration and interpretation of Bidwell Mansion, and to keep it as a public institution for everyone,” she said. “That’s what we’ve done since 1956, and we want to keep doing that.
“We’ve always acted in good faith,” she continued. “We’ve never met without a representative from the state present, or done anything without their input and approval. It’s part of our contract with them.”
The state didn’t just call for the money; it also demanded such items as the BMA’s computer and dinnerware. Brandt assumed the organization could retain records of past meetings and sent BMA treasurer Dianne Wrona to fetch a binder full of minutes stored in the mansion’s Visitor Center on Feb. 26. Less than two hours after doing so, she was visited at her home by a pair of State Park rangers who demanded she return the documents.
In a written statement provided by the BMA, Wrona said she felt “pressured and overpowered, alone in the house with two armed park rangers” who said they couldn’t leave without the items. Wrona eventually retrieved the items from her car, and said the officers followed her through her kitchen and into her garage without a requested or implied invitation to do so.
The BMA’s assets were supposed to be seized March 29, but the last-minute intervention of Assemblyman Dan Logue persuaded State Parks District Superintendent Michael Fehling to issue a 30-day extension on the transfer of assets. Brandt said Logue’s office will begin facilitating a mediation process between BMA and state officials beginning this week.
News of the mediation came as a surprise to Fehling Tuesday (April 3): “I haven’t been contacted by the Bidwell Mansion Association with any attempts to work out our differences and create a new relationship,” he said.
“What I know about the BMA lately I read in the paper, and it hasn’t exactly been flattering to State Parks. I don’t know if the BMA has a change of heart and wants to actually work with us or continue to play this out in the court of public opinion.”
Fehling said this isn’t a matter of whether the BMA can retain its status, as it already has been lost: “It is important to point out that the contract was terminated already; it was terminated at the time they lost their nonprofit status,” he said. “So the reinstatement of that status didn’t un-violate the contract.
“There were some tax issues that date back to as early as 2001. We didn’t become aware of this until just recently, and we’re hoping to get through this as quickly as possible and to keep things moving along.”
Fehling said he doesn’t personally object to establishing a new contract with the BMA and doesn’t know anyone at State Parks who would. A decision to do so would come from him and from executive staff from headquarters, he said.
“The BMA would have to come with us with a viable business plan, something we could work with,” he said.
Meanwhile, the state’s marching orders remain the same: “Unless something else transpires, the BMA will be transferring their assets to the Bidwell Bar Association for receivership [April 27],” Fehling said.
He explained the BBA was chosen partly because it is—as the BMA formerly was—a State Parks cooperating nonprofit association. He said the BBA will manage the money similar to how the BMA did, with funds used solely for mansion projects. In the event a new nonprofit (or perhaps even the BMA) signs a new contract with the state, the remaining funds will be placed in its care.
“We also chose the BBA to make it clearly be obvious to everybody that the state was not stealing or commandeering the BMA’s money, that the money was being transferred to another association to be retained and expended in the same accordance that the BMA was supposed to be doing with Bidwell Mansion,” Fehling said.
“The state did not, will not, and does not desire to take the BMA’s funds,” he continued.
Brandt said the BMA does not have a contingency plan: “We’re just hoping mediation works really well,” she said. “We’d like to get back to doing what we’ve always done.”