The conservancy that manages nine-tenths of Catalina Island began caving in on itself last week as a scientist and three members of the board of directors, one of them a major donor, walked away over differences with the organization’s top executive.
Their departures bring to 10 the number of scientists and officials who have quit in recent months citing what they say is Executive Director Ann Muscat’s controversial leadership style and differences over the direction she is taking the 40-year-old Catalina Island Conservancy.
“The organization is imploding,” Roy Rose, a Catalina resident and businessman who resigned from the board last week, said Friday while standing on the veranda of his home overlooking Avalon’s cozy harbor.
Rose, 77, said he had written the nonprofit out of his will, depriving it of more than $10 million. “I felt betrayed and misled,” Rose said.
Muscat remains on the job by virtue of what sources said was an 8-7 vote by the board in a closed session Dec. 14. Some board members wanted to fire her immediately, but a majority preferred to keep her until a replacement is found, the sources said.
On Dec. 17, however, the conservancy announced that Muscat had retained the full support of the board. The statement contributed to some of the recent resignations.
Muscat, a marine biologist hired a decade ago, is pushing development of new tourist attractions to bring badly needed revenue to the conservancy and the island’s tourism-oriented businesses. The conservancy manages most of the island’s wild lands, operating on $12 million a year from donations and earned revenue.
Some of those who left the conservancy disagreed with the emphasis on tourism over conservation.
A more recent concern of some board members was the discovery that Muscat’s employment contract had been renegotiated earlier this year without their approval. Muscat earns $286,000 a year, according to state tax reports. Conservancy officials Friday said the contract had been renegotiated by an executive committee, which consists of three board members.
Board Chairman John Cotton said the contract negotiations were conducted “under the guidance of a longtime outside counsel.”
Cotton said the dissent reflected strong dissatisfaction with Muscat and the board. “We respect and are very thankful for all our donors,” he said. “Hopefully, through a dialogue, we can come to an understanding.”
Muscat could not be reached by telephone, and Norris Bishton, head of legal affairs for the conservancy, said she was not available to comment.
Other troubling issues involve Muscat’s use of an assistant’s conservancy credit card, which Muscat is authorized to review, instead of one issued to her, which the chief operating officer is authorized to review. Mel Dinkel, the conservancy’s most recent treasurer and chief operating officer, resigned in May.
Separately, conservancy attorneys investigated a claim that the nonprofit violated its rules by paying about $5,000 in travel expenses for Muscat’s husband to join her on a conservancy-sponsored “donor development trip” in 2009 to an island off Baja California, Mexico.
Sources say Muscat later reimbursed the organization after other officers pointed out that there was no policy for covering a spouse’s travel costs in full.
For some, the issue goes beyond Muscat. Despite plans to replace her, they say, the board’s behavior has taken a toll on the organization’s credibility.
Many of the conservancy’s 75 employees are now weighing their options.
“I believe deeply in the organization and its mission — but things don’t look good,” said a conservancy manager, who asked to remain anonymous. “Many of these issues can be resolved. But do I want to spend the next five years helping dig the organization out of the hole it’s in?”
Regina Birdsell, a marketing and communications executive with the Center for Nonprofit Management, said board of directors of nonprofits need to operate transparently “because that is a sign of confidence that it is well-run and focused on achieving its mission.” Renegotiating an executive officer’s contract without the board’s approval, she added, “is sloppy governance.”
Rose would not argue with that.
“For years, I was so passionate about the conservancy that I donated $20,000 to $30,000 a year,” he said. “In my original will, they were to receive my home and a commercial building I own in Avalon that has 24,000 square feet of space and is fully leased.”
“Not anymore. I wrote the conservancy out of my will, and I did it with a sense of urgency,” he said. “I do not believe the conservancy could handle such gifts responsibly.”