NORTH TONAWANDA – The North Tonawanda History Museum has completed an exterior renovation project that makes the former department store a point of pride on Webster Street.
But go inside, beyond the displays and historic collections, and you find a museum board that is struggling with resignations and infighting.
In August the board president and vice president resigned. A few months later the board members who replaced them also resigned.
The cause of that struggle is being placed squarely at the feet of longtime volunteer executive director Donna Zellner Neal, who has been called verbally abusive and who some said had overstepped the bounds of her position.
Neal, in turn, has put the blame on trustees.
On Saturday that will change, as Neal announced she will take over the board of trustees, becoming chairman of the board while remaining in her role as corporate secretary and volunteer executive director. She and the two members that remain on the board have agreed to abolish the roles of president and vice president, renaming them chairman and vice chairman. Barbara A. Wickman will become vice chairman and clerk-treasurer while Janice A. McDonald will be trustee.
Neal also announced in her newsletter that she plans to resign as full-time volunteer executive director in 2019, which will be the 15th anniversary of the museum.
In the meantime, Neal said they will look for new trustees who are loyal and committed, including someone who will eventually take over as chairman.
Those who have previously taken on that role said Neal threatened legal action against anyone who speaks out on board matters outside the board room.
However, Neal has been speaking out, using an email newsletter that she sends out several times a month to speak out on her own behalf.
Thinly veiled accusations come up time and time again, placing the blame for the continued problems and resignations squarely on former board members.
“We have suffered at the operational level because the full body that is the board of trustees has been dysfunctional, dumping most of its responsibilities onto the corporate secretary (Neal) and onto the volunteer executive director (Neal) at the operations level,” Neal said in her 28-page Dec. 13 newsletter.
Two weeks later, in a 34-page Dec. 28 newsletter, she continues, “Do board members understand their roles and responsibilities? Ha! These generally to date have put a huge amount of work on the shoulders of the executive director and did not provide returns because of almost a total lack of interest on the part of participants in learning what the museum is all about.”
New board members also will have to continue to deal with financial issues, including a $675,000 mortgage. The former property owner at 54 Webster St. said in September that the museum stopped making payments on the mortgage six years ago. He said the museum owes him more than $450,000, including 73 months in late fees.
Neal said the museum is in continued negotiations with the mortgage holder, California property manager Vadim Gorobets, to eliminate the second mortgage.
The museum raised nearly $45,000 from 2013 to 2015 for the exterior renovation project, which included window panes, new awnings and a new exterior sign. It has set its sights on a new project: Neal said the museum is attempting to raise $14,518 to replace falling bricks on the exterior south wall of the building.
Those who are interested in serving on the board or who want to donate seed money for the next project, should contact Neal at the museum at email@example.com or check out the website at www.nthistorymuseum.org.