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Landmarks now on notice to fix things

January 13, 2019

The Office of the Attorney General struck a good balance by putting Connecticut Landmarks on notice that they have to do a better job maintaining the historical properties and endowments entrusted to them, while not being so heavy handed as to invite litigation that could further drain the nonprofit group’s resources.

The report, released on Jan. 4 in the finals days of Attorney General George Jepsen’s eight years in office, is consistent with the philosophy that office followed during his time in charge. Far less litigious and publicly contentious than his predecessor — now U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal — Jepsen would, if possible, rather see a matter settled than dragged out in lengthy litigation.

And though Jepsen recused himself from this review — he is friends with people at Landmarks and once hosted a fundraiser at his home — it is in keeping with the tone he set for the office.

The report by Deputy Attorney General Perry Zinn Rowthorn makes clear that Landmarks did a poor job of monitoring maintenance issues at some of its historic properties and in a couple of cases used a loosey-goosey interpretation of the rules governing the charitable gifts that were bequeathed to it for care of the properties, but did not misappropriate funds.

Charged by state law with representing “the public interest in the protection of any gifts, legacies or devises intended for public or charitable purposes,” the attorney general’s office could have acted with a heavier hand. It could have gone to court to try to wrest control of the organization and turn it over to new leadership, or tried to order Landmarks how and where to direct its funds, or in some other fashion sought a court-backed penalty.

Such moves would have been headline grabbing, we suspect, but as for making sure the group’s resources were used for their proper preservation purpose, such an approach would have missed the mark. Because the result in that case would have almost certainly been litigation and we all know where the money goes when that happens.

Instead its conclusions provide a road map and a warning.

Connecticut Landmarks must continue its work on Forge Farm in Stonington — a property it considered divesting in 2017 — so that it is representative of early America architecture, consistent with the intent of the donor in 1983, the late Virginia Berry. And it has the money to do so, the review concluded.

The organization should “continue all renovation, development, and cataloging activity at the Palmer-Warner Property with the goal of fully developing the property to preserve its historic character and to provide access to the public.” Heretofore, the organization has been woefully negligent in maintaining the 18th century house at 307 East Town St. in East Haddam.

Further, Landmarks is asked to make sure all its properties are sufficiently maintained and protected from the elements. It should set up an inspection schedule and designate an inspector to regularly report to the Board of Trustees.

The report also recommends Landmarks develop relationships with local historical preservation societies, partnerships it has avoided to the detriment of the properties in its protection.

And here is the kicker. The Office of the Attorney General will keep the inquiry open. This means if Landmarks does not shape up, the new sheriff in town — Attorney General William Tong — could come down much harder. That’s called an incentive.

Landmarks last week quickly rushed out a statement accepting the report and committing to “immediately initiate any recommended procedural and administrative changes contained in the review.” That’s called a good sign.

For whatever reason, the deputy attorney general appeared too willing to accept Landmarks’ excuses for its failures, but in the end the result was the right one.

We cannot conclude this topic without acknowledging the aggressive reporting of Day columnist David Collins. His efforts uncovered the failures of Landmarks to do its job at multiple properties. Without that reporting it is doubtful there would have been a review or a plan of action.

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