By Dan Linehan
Free Press Staff Writer
— On June 29, 2011, two groups claiming to be the Le Sueur County Historical Society held meetings at the same time at different locations.
The legal fight over which of the two groups was the real historical society ended Monday. A Le Sueur County judge ruled that a splinter group’s effort to elect a new board of Trustees was invalid.
Judge Thomas G. McCarthy wrote that the “parties’ interpretations of the facts are wildly different,” but his decision came down to one simple fact.
Neither the president nor vice president of the board were at the splinter group’s first meeting, a requirement of the bylaws for a meeting. That makes the meeting invalid, he wrote, and it invalidates the new Board of Trustees the group elected.
“Without the President present, presiding over the meeting, under an agenda determined by the President, the meeting was invalid and the elections held at that meeting were invalid,” he wrote.
Mick McGuire, elected as the president during the splinter meeting, said he was disappointed.
“I think the judge took an easy way out with a summary judgment and never really gave us an opportunity to explain why we were there,” said McGuire, former mayor of Montgomery.
“The big issue here all along has been basically the disenfranchising of the majority of the Le Sueur County Historical Society members by the current director,” he said, referring to Kathy Burns, the society’s coordinator.
But the ruling didn’t touch those issues, and neither did defense attorney Quentin Wittrock, who represented the original group for free. He works for the Minneapolis firm Gray Plant Mooty.
Wittrock said the plaintiffs’ group was confusing the public, the members and even the commissioners of Le Sueur County, who are responsible for the $50,000 or so the historical society gives out every year.
As a result of the court case, the county didn’t disburse most of its funds to the historical society this year.
McGuire said he’s not sure what happens now, and that it’s unlikely his group will appeal.
Wittrock said the ruling makes one thing clear.
“The plaintiff’s group clearly has to stop using the name ‘Le Sueur County Historical Society,’ ” he said.
Though they didn’t have any board members at their meeting, the splinter group was the more popular during the twin meetings of June 29.
Seventy-seven people met in the American Legion Hall in Elysian to elect a new slate of board members, the judge wrote in his ruling. The meeting was led by Le Sueur County Commissioner John Grimm and historical society member Jim Morris.
This group would end up being the plaintiffs in the court case. They elected Jim Hansen, Juliane Jacobsen, Tim Sellner and McGuire.
Also that evening, 17 members, including Board President Jean Haas, attended a historical society meeting at the Le Center Sportsman’s Club. The board members would be named as the defense in the lawsuit.
Since that first meeting, both groups have been meeting regularly, and both have been largely paralyzed. The existing group retained the keys to the group’s three museums, but without the funds to fully operate them. The splinter group held presentations but likewise didn’t have county funding.
McGuire said the Elysian museum is in “shambles,” though the museums in Le Sueur and Cleveland have been maintained.
“This shouldn’t be the kind of thing you fight a battle over. It’s kind of amazed me that it’s gotten to this point,” he said.
Who met correctly?
The splinter group used its own interpretations of the nonprofit’s bylaws, established in 1965 and updated in 2005, to convene its meeting.
The relevant passage reads: “Special meeting of the society or Board of Trustees may be called by the President at any time and also upon written request by ten members of the society or any three members of the Board of Trustees.”
The new group argued that any 10 members could make a request to the membership at large. The existing group said only the president could decide to honor a request.
The judge said neither interpretation is correct.
He wrote the new group had an “absurd reading” of the language because there would be nothing to prevent 10 members from electing new officers every month.
But he also wrote that a president alone couldn’t decide whether to honor requests. If that were the case, there would be no point for written requests from anybody. In other words, what would be the point of establishing an alternative means of petitioning a meeting, if it’s still the president who decides?
In any case, the judge wrote that it didn’t really matter how the first meetings were convened. The new meeting was invalid because neither the president nor vice-president attended.
This is not the first dispute over the historical society in Le Sueur County. In 2008, another group, the Elysian Area Historical Society, claimed it, not the county historical society, owned the history museum in Elysian. That contest, McGuire said, has never been fully resolved.