The Leesburg Town Council has given the town staff the green light to negotiate a new lease with the Loudoun Museum’s board of trustees.
The 5-2 vote Tuesday night, with Vice Mayor Suzanne Fox and Councilman Josh Thiel opposed, followed a joint meeting between the council and the board of trustees last week when all parties appeared willing to continue the decades-old arrangement of the town leasing three buildings, at a rates of $1 per year, to the museum. This despite the organization’s recent troubles that saw the new museum board, which was put in place by the Board of Supervisors in January, fire the museum’s executive director; the resignations of its remaining staff; and the indefinite closure of the museum. Supervisors at their Sept. 20 meeting agreed to continue funding the museum at a rate of $156,000 annually.
Although Town Manager Kaj Dentler had previously advocated specific performance standards to be put in the museum’s new lease, Tuesday night a council majority opposed that approach. Performance standards could, among other stipulations, require the museum to be open for a certain number of hours per week. The previous lease included a stipulation that the museum be open 46 hours weekly, but that benchmark was rarely met.
“We are landlords in this,” Councilman Tom Dunn said. “I don’t know how many private owners have leases which dictate how, when and where they’re going to run their business. You’re a private entity; you should be treated as such without having performance standards on you. That’s not what a landlord should be involved in. If we’re going to set those standards we might as well take back the property now.”
Thiel made an unsuccessful motion to require the museum board to reach out to the town’s Economic Development Department or Economic Development Commission when problems arise.
“We’ve had this open line of communication that clearly hasn’t worked. We need to have at least some kind of formal agreement with the board and with the town that makes sure it’s self-sustaining in the future,” he said.
Thiel also asked Town Attorney Barbara Notar about rumors that a lawsuit had been threatened by the museum’s previous executive director and that the museum membership had not ratified three members of the current board. He asked Notar whether the town would be at risk of litigation as the museum’s landlord.
“I don’t think there’s a reasonable risk of that,” she said. “I feel very competent I can protect the town from any type of risk.”
Notar also said that, in consulting with the museum’s attorney, there was no pending lawsuit against the museum, nor a threat of a lawsuit.
Council members did not appear to find consensus on the length of the new lease, but it will not be for more than five years. Leases for five years or less can be approved by the Town Council without advertisement and receiving bids, a staff report notes. Dunn advocated a lease of not more than two years.
Melanie Miles, owner of the Glenfiddich House on King Street, urged the council to keep the museum board accountable. She also publicly pledged $1,000 to pay for interns’ to help in cataloguing museum archives.
“All I’m asking is that the future of the museum be a thoughtful and detailed consideration. It’s not worth trying to save and resurrect if there’s not a detailed and accountable plan,” she said.
The final draft of the museum lease will come back to the council for a vote. Until then, cautious optimism on the part of both the museum board and council remains.
“I think we all have ideas that we want the museum to be successful and all want to be a partner with the museum. I’m very enthusiastic that I think the new board of trustees is going to take the museum to a place it’s never been before,” Mayor Kelly Burk said.