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Published: Friday, 10/10/2003

An expensive history lesson

Preserving the records and memorabilia that document a state's history is an important public function that merits state funding. Too bad the people in charge at the Ohio Historical Society haven't learned to carry out their job with a modicum of fiscal responsibility.

The historical society, which earlier this year was crying poor, laying off staff, and cutting services, now has two men pulling down executive director pay. Only one is working but both are making six-figure salaries.

In a sweetheart deal that looks alarmingly like those hatched in corporate boardrooms, Gary Ness, who stepped down Aug. 18 after 23 years as executive director, will continue to draw his $140,078 annual salary through the end of August, 2004.

In the meantime, William Laidlaw, Jr., former associate dean at Case Western Reserve University's school of management, has moved into the job at $165,000 a year.

Paying two people more than $300,000 for the work of one may be tolerated in the corporate world, but such an arrangement is totally out of place in a publicly subsidized organization. The historical society, while not officially a state agency, gets about 70 percent of its operating money from the state of Ohio - you, the taxpayers - according to published reports.

Moreover, such a scandal reflects poorly on celebrating this year of Ohio's 200th birthday. A bicentennial observance should find a state historical society at its zenith, rather than cutting staff and reducing hours or even closing facilities, as the society did with Ohio Village, the living-history display in Columbus.

In May, as the state budget was making its way through the General Assembly in the midst of lamentations over a projected budget deficit, the historical society announced that it would have to cut 101 jobs, shut down eight sites, and reduce hours at others, including the Hayes Presidential Center in Fremont.

The legislature solved the problem - with a sales tax increase that is fueling a two-year budget larger than the last biennium, despite all the talk about cutbacks. The budget gave the historical society $1.5 million more for both fiscal 2004 and 2005, but it wasn't enough.

In July, halfway through the bicentennial year, the society announced it was cutting 39 jobs. Now we know why. It's expensive to, in effect, pay two executive directors, especially when only one of them is on the job.

Society officials portray the hiring of Mr. Laidlaw, 60, as a “lucky” happenstance, but it's pretty clear that this overly generous deal is a reward to the departing Mr. Ness, who is 63. He is supposed to be back from what is described as a “sabbatical” leave in February, although his duties through next summer are yet to be specified.

As part of the deal, the society's board also paid $41,472 to buy Mr. Ness an additional 21/2 years of retirement benefits, an expense not usually borne by public agencies, the Columbus Dispatch reported.

Given recent publicity over excessive spending by the state teachers and police and fire pension funds, it is surprising that the historical society did not recognize the anger that wells up among the public against such gratuitous and unnecessary retirement perks.

The outcry over the pension-fund scandals cost a couple of people their jobs. As a philosopher once said, those who do not learn the lessons of history are doomed to repeat them. It's an admonition the board of the Ohio Historical Society, more than most, should understand.



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