Peoria historical society dispute reaches into taxpayer pockets

City: Artifacts secured until resolution reached

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A legal dispute between two groups claiming to be the rightful Peoria Arizona Historical Society has now reached into the pockets of taxpayers.

The city retained the services of a museum expert, last July, with experience in small museums and certified collections to ensure the protection of historic items. The expert has begun work to identify, catalogue, wrap, and package the artifacts for storage until the dispute is resolved and a PAHS governing board is legally established.

Consequently, the council approved $19,000, Nov. 12, to cover the costs associated with the services of the museum expert, packaging supplies, movers and storage facilities.

When, and if the PAHS is established in a new location, the city will seek reimbursement, according to officials.

RELATED: Peoria responds to requests for the return of artifacts

Peoria has no authority over the society, but has leased the museum property to PAHS dating back to the 1990s, ending in an eviction in July, after the city determined no compromise was in sight, and took back the buildings -- and control of the artifacts within them.

Mayor Cathy Carlat said it is unfortunate it has gotten to the point of being a legal matter.

Residents and others who have artifacts in the PAHS museum will not get them back unless the splintered group comes to a resolution, she said.

“The city is not part of the historical society; the city has not closed the historical society. It was not ours to close,” said the mayor.

“We closed our buildings when we could not determine who was in charge of the contents of those buildings, which we had to do because we could not determine who was in charge of the contents of those buildings, which we had to do because, you know, we couldn’t answer to any particular historical society board and none could answer to us. And so we did close it.

“We did not want to be involved in this, and much, much time was spent waiting for those two parties to resolve their situation,” she said.

PAHS was tasked with controlling the day-to-day operations of the museum in Old Town Peoria, which included five buildings — Peoria Central School Museum, Office Workshop, Business and Government Museum, Agricultural Museum and the Peoria Jail House. The artifacts within the museum are owned by PAHS or loaned by residents and others.

The dispute between the two groups includes allegations that unauthorized members attempted to access the nonprofit’s bank accounts and that artifacts were stolen.

In a pre-trial motion earlier this year, Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Pamela Gates denied partial summary judgments for both sides.

Frank Mead, an attorney for one of the groups, said no resolution has been reached between the groups.

David Brnilovich, the attorney for the other group, did not be respond to a request for an interview.

“We had a hearing last week and another hearing (is scheduled) later this month to address whether the parties will participate in a settlement conference with a superior court judge. My clients have agreed with enthusiasm. We’re waiting for the other group to confirm,” Mr. Mead said.

The conflict has left the rightful owners of PAHS artifacts with no access to their property.

Eva Osuna, a life-long resident of Peoria, has been a PAHS member and volunteer along with other family members. She said she and her family have a lot invested in the historical society with artifacts in the museum from a business her mother owned and operated for more than 30 years.

“I heard the previous board removed all the tags from the artifacts. That is concerning to me because my artifacts are in there. If those things are removed, a professional curator is not going to be able to say, ‘that belongs to the Osuna family.’ I will be the only one that can say that. And that’s my concern.

“So how do we take care of this? I would like to be more aware of what is going on,” she said.

“I would really appreciate that those artifacts that belong to my family be returned to me. I know which ones they are. I am very afraid that they are going to be moved and when they get moved they’re going to get lost, especially if they don’t have the tags on them ... So I am respectfully asking for whoever is in charge to contact me. I will pick up my items.”

Betty Ramsey Osborn, 81, a lifetime member of the society since 1990, said she would really like to see the historical society continue, with other long-time members enlisted to inventory the artifacts.

“I want to work with the city to see if we can get a lot of new folks to work together. I believe that would save a lot of that $19,000 if we get a good group of officers and members on the board to serve and work with the city,” she said.

“I hate to see that much money being spent when we have good folks in Peoria, old timers who would like to have their things returned. If we could start our historical society anew, I would love to see that.” 

But Ms. Carlat said the splintered society had plenty of time to resolve their differences and when they didn’t, Peoria finally had to come in with its own curator to inventory the items to assure the history of the city is well cared for.

The city is now spending money to do that, and  will continue to do whatever has to be done to make sure the artifacts are taken care of, she said. This includes securing the items until the legal matter between the two groups is resolved.

“We have no choice,” she said. “If both of those entities would like to resolve their legal dispute, and one of them came forward and said, ‘I am the Peoria Arizona Historical Society,’ we would be more than happy to deal with that organization and release everything to them. We are not in the historical artifact business.”

Philip Haldiman can be reached at 623-876-3697, phaldiman@newszap.com, or on Twitter @philiphaldiman.

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