Letter: Lingering questions about the Madera County Arts Council — and its former executive director

February 12, 2020

I’m not sure why people in our community continue to ask me questions about the outrageous conduct of the former executive director of the Madera County Arts Council following her employment termination. Perhaps it’s because I served on the arts council board of directors for six years. Maybe it’s because I now serve on the Madera County Arts Authority, a completely separate entity. I don’t have all the answers.

 

I do know that when I left the arts council board 2 1/2 years ago, that I stated that the executive director needed to learn that she worked for the board, and not vice versa.

 

After running her own business for a long time, she seemed to have difficulty serving in the role of an employee rather than an employer.

 

I won’t go into the details of what I saw and heard during my service. The current board of directors is trying its best to preserve the confidentiality of that employer-employee relationship, a personnel matter, even in the face of her recent outbursts. The fact that she has chosen to hang her dirty laundry in public doesn’t mean that others should follow suit. 

 

She and the staff of the council did some good things during the past 3 1/2 years. We owe them our gratitude and I’m grateful to the current board for its recent hiring of an interim ED.

 

The terminated ED’s post-termination conduct was outrageously inappropriate. It says more about her than the people she defamed. 

 

What questions can I not answer?

 

• Well, why did the terminated ED think that it was appropriate for her to use the property of her former employer, its contact list of members, financial supporters and others, to send out emails (I received three) criticizing her former employer?

 

• Why did she use that misappropriated property to send emails in a form that seemed to be emails from and authorized by the Arts Council when it was not, a misrepresentation? 

 

• Why did she disparage, if not libel, people she identified in her mailings, including people who have volunteered thousands of hours over more than a decade to make Madera better?

 

• Why did this angry person ask people to cut off funding to her former employer?

 

• Why does she think that she is so much more important than the adult and child artists, served by the arts council, who would be harmed by her self-serving demands?

 

• Why did she complain about being fired by mail when she not only did not show up for work but disobeyed directives to come to work to talk with board members?

 

If you, as an employer, had an employee who refused to come to work and refused to talk with you, especially after you, as an employer, had repeatedly counseled her, and even brought in a counselor/mediator from the outside to try to work things out, then what do you do? Do you send the employee a paycheck and hope that she drops by the office at her personal convenience? Of course not! When the employee’s shelf life has expired, you communicate with her as best as you can-through the mail.

 

I don’t know why she reacted in such a manner. I do believe that her reaction says more about her than it does about the board of directors who appreciated the good things that she did but, as many employers do, finally ran out of gas in their dealings with a self-absorbed employee. 

 

When she sent all those inappropriate emails while a friend of hers was writing a letter to the editor, I resisted the temptation to write this letter. But the misinformation is still out there. Its stench causes people to ask me questions. Here’s my response. 

 

I know that the arts council is run by volunteers who care about this community of ours. They have accomplished much over the years and I know that the council, just like any other organization, is more important than any one person. That’s why my wife and I gave the arts council $1,000 at its most recent board meeting. We believe in its past, present and future. The council is in good shape and will continue to be so.

 

The fact that the memory of Elaine and Franklin Secara being attacked disgusts me. But there is one line of attack made by the terminated ED and her friend that angers me. It’s something that I do know something about. It angers me because it’s false; I’ve told them repeatedly that it’s false and they don’t seem to care. In putting forth their falsity, they disparage the intelligence of a woman I care about and they invite the arts council to violate the law.

 

Why? Why, in “a sane world,” would people do this?

 

Here’s what I’m talking about. Many of you will remember Franklin and Elaine Secara as two of the sweetest people ever to call Madera “home.” Franklin, a founding member of the Madera County Arts Council, passed away before Elaine. Elaine created a TRUST that included Secara financial assets. In that TRUST she created an estate that was left to the arts council. It totaled about $2.55 million.

 

I was on the arts council board at the time. I was also on the committee that recommended an investment plan for those monies. Elaine’s TRUST stated in relevant part that those monies were to be distributed to the arts council for “the purpose of constructing, maintaining, and improving a cultural arts center to be constructed in Madera County.”

 

Pretty simple so far.  But here’s where it gets ugly. A former ED of the arts council, a former board member, and the most recently terminated ED have repeatedly said that Mrs. Secara verbally told one of them, without witnesses, that what she really wanted was for the arts council to build a structure for itself and name it after her late husband.

 

Did that conversation take place? I don’t know.

 

What I do know is that Elaine Secara, a woman that I personally knew to be intelligent and straightforward, and who loved Madera while being in love with her husband, could have said that in her trust if that was what she wanted.

 

But she did not.

 

I mean, really, how much effort does it take to say in writing that “I’m giving you a couple million dollars to build a new art gallery and name it after my late, loving husband?”

 

You may have noticed that I spelled the word TRUST in all caps.

 

A trust, like wills, contracts, and, dare I say, constitutions, are legal documents. They contain words. Those words are to be taken at face value in their common sense meaning. That especially applies to a TRUST. We put our financial assets into a TRUST, knowing that after we die that those assets are going to be distributed according to our written instructions. We know that we won’t be around to supervise. And we TRUST that the person we choose to implement our written directions will do what we wrote, not just because it’s the right thing to do, but because the law demands that it be so. It’s all about TRUST.

 

And Elaine chose a niece of hers, someone I’ve known and trusted for nearly 40 years, to be the person to legally and faithfully execute those instructions. That person has served on the board of directors of the Madera County Arts Council for nearly a decade, largely to protect her family’s interest in seeing the bequest of Mrs. Secara carried out as she intended. She’s one of the people disparaged recently by the former ED because she, the Secara niece, had the audacity to disagree with the former ED and her friends.

 

I have told the former ED and/or her friends about the significance of the TRUST language one-on-one, at board meetings, at a public gathering when they brought it up, and in response to a letter to the editor suggesting that the Secara money be used to rehab the 1917 library building on Yosemite Ave. for use by the Arts Council. I’m saying it again. The message is pretty simple:

 

We put things in writing to be enforced after our death because we don’t want people with their own agenda hijacking the money based on an alleged conversation!

 

Why do they choose to demean the intelligence of an art benefactor? Are they actually saying that Elaine didn’t know what she was doing when she created her TRUST? How shameful! How disgusting!  Who anointed them to redraft that TRUST long after the fact of its drafting and legal execution?

 

And who are they to express self-righteous outrage at a board of directors that refused to violate the TRUST and the law? What does this say about them?

 

I’m not a know it all. I did, however, serve on the board of directors when the arts council gratefully accepted the money. I know the person that Elaine Secara TRUSTED to execute her wishes. I read the relevant portion of the TRUST. I graduated from law school. I passed the California bar exam. I practiced law for 14 years. I served as a Madera County Superior Court judge for more than 20 years.

 

But what the hell do I know about legal documents?

 

Then there’s the misleading information about a performing arts center. Then there’s this misleading story they are pushing about a $65 million performing arts center. That’s where I come in, relative to my current position as one of five people on the Madera County Arts Authority.

 

The Arts Authority (not to be confused with the Arts Council) was created by the City of Madera, County of Madera, Madera Unified School District, and the Madera County Arts Council. The document creating the Arts Authority (yes, another legal document!) states in relevant part that “(T)his Agreement is made to accomplish the following goals and purposes: 

 

A. The Madera County Arts Authority’s goal is to enlighten the public as to the enhancement and benefits of artistic principles, including but not limited to:

 

• Expanding artistic awareness, participation and expression in all areas of the arts-visual, literary and performing;

 

• Help organize and increase private and public sector support for existing and new cultural and educational activities;

 

• Enrich school curricula by promoting the arts;

 

• Serve all general and cultural groups through the arts;

 

• Develop public and private financial support for the arts;

 

• Help strengthen existing arts and organizations;

 

• Provide assistance to individual artists; and

 

• Help coordinate local art resources, including raising funds to promote art in public places.

 

B. The parties to this Agreement wish to cooperate to carry out the above purposes in addition to cooperatively seeking to provide for the development of an arts center in the City of Madera serving the entire County of Madera and to develop a mechanism of its operation and maintenance.”

 

I don’t see anything in this document that talks about the $65 million Performing Arts Center that the former ED and her friend are railing against, do you? I suppose that if you create a paper tiger, then it’s easy to burn it down, but you would think that people who want to convince you of the righteousness of their hellfire and brimstone would get their facts straight.

 

There is some history to this misleading story, however.

 

Preceding the development of the Arts Authority, its public members did hire an architectural firm to interview Maderans, draft a concept of what a performing arts center might look like, describe the possible rehabilitation of the 1917 library on Yosemite Avenue, and estimate the potential costs for such a project. The figures were astronomical. Millions of dollars. Can Madera raise the money to build such a place and then keep its doors open? I don’t know. It’s worth checking into. What if it were doable and we, in our arrogant ignorance, didn’t at least ask the necessary questions and do the research?

 

But this was all before the creation of the Arts Authority. The future of the arts in Madera County deserves better than the attempt to blur the lines between hearsay, a concept, and reality.

 

What I have begun to learn at the Arts Authority is that something much less grand, more functional and less expensive, and perhaps more needed in Madera than a world class performing arts center is likely to be doable. I’m optimistic. I am even excited about it. It would serve the needs of our community, the mandate of the Arts Authority and the requirements of the Arts Council, including our friend Elaine’s written request. 

 

But we have to work together to make it happen. Refusing to understand the concept of teamwork can leave some people on the outside looking in waiting for something in the mail.

 

— Charles Wieland,

 

Madera

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