A handful of self-described “profound history buffs” are petitioning the Historical Society to open itself up for greater scrutiny of its finances, event planning and governance structure in light of several perceived deficiencies outlined in a June 27 letter addressed to society board members.
Specifically, the five individuals who signed the letter point to President Rich Vitton and his allegedly inept leadership for a lack of regular board meetings, public events, fundraising efforts and membership drives, among other complaints. According to a copy of the letter, Vitton has “stymied” deeper involvement of Historical Society members in the group’s affairs while “verbally bashing” the work done by the society’s founding member, the late Dr. Frank Orland.
“We are very concerned that the president of the Historical Society is acting independently, having no accountability to anyone and leaving us with nowhere to turn when we have questions or issues surrounding his performance,” the letter states.
It is signed by William Sawisch, Patricia Marino, Sally Taylor, August Aleksy and John Rice.
Rice is a columnist for the Forest Park Review.
Vitton, who received a copy of the letter from the society’s treasurer and Frank Orland’s widow, Dr. Phyllis Orland, vehemently denied the accusations. The society’s artifacts are on display at the Forest Park Public Library by appointment, he is constantly in contact with researchers and historians from around the country and the treasurer receives monthly financial reports, Vitton said.
“They know exactly how much (money) is in there,” Vitton said.
Phyllis Orland, an 88-year-old woman who freely admits she has little interest in managing the society’s affairs, said she in fact has no idea how much money the organization has, but is pleased with the “wonderful job” Vitton has been doing. Orland said she has also lost track of a Historical Society trust fund established with money willed to the organization by her late husband some six years ago.
“Why should I think about this,” Orland said of the group’s finances.
Since he began volunteering with the Historical Society eight years ago, Vitton said the organization’s bank account has grown from the $14,000 that was there when he started. He declined to say exactly how much money the society has, but said the non-profit group has less than $25,000.
Both Orland and Vitton acknowledge the Historical Society board hasn’t met in roughly a year and that no record of the most recent meetings was kept. In addition to Orland, two other board members are elderly. This complicates the process of organizing meetings, they said. Orland maintains her independence with the assistance of a full-time caregiver.
Vitton’s wife, Valda Vitton, and Mary Winn Connor round-out the five-member board.
“If (Vitton) is guilty of anything, he’s guilty of not delegating,” Connor said.
Despite the altruistic claims of the five people who signed the complaint against him, Vitton said there is nothing sincere about the sudden interest in his work. A recent falling out with Sally Cody, who is the mayor’s administrative assistant and heads up the ad hoc Centennial Celebration committee for the village, is to blame, Vitton said. In June, Vitton lent several dozen photographs to Cody’s committee for a publicity event to drum up interest in a time capsule that will be buried later this year. At the event’s conclusion, Vitton said he collected the duplicate images because no one from the Centennial Committee did so. Several days later on June 22 he received an irate phone call from Cody, accusing him of pilfering the photos. Ten minutes later a library employee informed him that village hall staff and police were attempting to gain entry to the Historical Society’s archives.
“The point is, Sally Cody got mad and is throwing a tantrum,” Vitton said.
Cody acknowledged that her ex-husband, Lt. Michael Cody, accompanied the village administrator and one of the petitioners, Marino–who works at the community center–to the Historical Society’s archives in an effort to collect the duplicated photos. However, she said that she specifically told Vitton those duplicates were the property of the Centennial Committee and he was not to take them.
Cody also admitted that she wrote the letter on behalf of the complainants and assisted them in contacting several members of the Historical Society board. Cody described her role in the effort to bring greater scrutiny to Vitton’s work as “very limited” and said she was simply acting as a liaison that had the resources to assist.
“Because of who we are here (at village hall) we’re more apt to have contacts and understand the process,” Cody said. “I don’t think that’s unusual at all. Who else would they turn to?”
On a personal level, Cody said she supports the idea of bringing in new board members-as proposed in the letter–and believes the Historical Society could benefit from membership drives, fundraisers and additional outreach efforts to boost public interest.
Three of the petitioners, Sawisch, Aleksy and Rice, declined to comment on the letter.
At least three of the Historical Society board members, Orland, Connor and Valda Vitton, said they have no interest in ousting Vitton as the society’s president.
“Suddenly there’s a group of people who think they know more than we do,” Orland said.