Arizona's Hysterical Society

Tempers Are Flaring Among The State's Hardcore History Buffs.

THE FORMER director and several long-standing members of the Arizona Historical Society have sent letters to state legislators and the governor alleging impropriety in the highly politicized state-financed organization.

Last year Tucsonan Felipe Jácome was removed from his post by the society's state board during bitter in-fighting between Phoenix-area members and other board factions.

In his letter, Jácome cites an internal document indicating the society's new lobbyist, Jim Norton, is the son-in-law of Richard Shaw, current AHS state board president.

"Since the society is a state-trust agency, doesn't this kind of lobbyist service have to be advertised before a retainer is awarded?" Jácome asks in his letter. "Are there not state laws against spending state-appropriated dollars on his kind of nepotism?"

The document Jácome cites is a February 23 memo from Joe Hiller, AHS interim executive director and former board member, to all state and chapter board members.

In an interview last week, Hiller said of Jácome's accusations regarding Norton that the lobbyist selection was made by the society's executive committee -- after a disclosure by Shaw that Norton is his son-in-law.

"It was made known to the executive committee, and Richard certainly did not vote on that action at that point," Hiller said.

Hiller added that he recommended Norton for the AHS legislative liaison job because the lobbyist was familiar with the society and its issues.

At Hiller's recommendation, the society's legislative affairs committee -- which numbers about half a dozen people, including Shaw as a non-voting, ex officio member -- had invited Norton and one other consultant to provide an "educational overview" of services that a consultant could provide to the society.

Although Hiller said Shaw "had mentioned to me that his son-in-law did this type of thing, and probably would volunteer to meet with the committee and educate them," Hiller added that nobody had actually influenced his decision to invite Norton.

In his memo, Hiller notes that the legislation -- SB 1445, which has since failed to make it out of committee -- was introduced this year to restructure the society with a seven-member, governor-appointed commission, replacing the current nominating process and member-elected AHS board.

Although Hiller admits the society "certainly could benefit from examining its governance and organizational model from time to time," he said the proposed legislation "is not in the interests of the society, which is a volunteer organization. There are literally thousands of people who contributed in various ways, and we really feel that creating a governor-appointed commission puts at great risk disenfranchising the membership."

But critics, including Jácome and other Tucsonans, as well as other society members from outside the Phoenix area, are complaining bitterly that the current AHS board-selection system has given rise to hermetically sealed, self-perpetuating leadership -- a decidedly undemocratic mode of government for a state-funded agency.

"The fact that the current state board has disenfranchised the [society's] paid symptomatic of the need for fundamental reform in the way that the board is elected and organized," Jácome writes to the legislators. "Now, AHS members have no real choice as to the slate of board member candidates that are presented to the membership for election at the annual meeting. It's either support the choices of the self-perpetuating oligarchy that has run the society for years, or not."

This "oligarchy," critics charge, is controlled by Phoenix-area residents, many of whom have a very limited vision of what constitutes Arizona history, leaning mostly to Anglo-centric, post-1871 events concurrent with the founding of Phoenix. Very few of the society's ruling clique, the critics claim, have formal training in history and related academic disciplines.

"Part of the problem with the society," Jácome, an historical archaeologist, said in a recent interview, "is that in the state of Arizona we've never had a real statewide, no-kidding, fully public, fully disclosed conversation about history in Arizona -- why we're in the business of it, why it's important, why we've been doing this as a state- and territory-funded activity."

This despite the fact that the Historical Society was authorized by the first Territorial Legislature back in 1863. (But it wasn't actually founded until 1884, as a Tucson-based, nonprofit organization. The state capitol had moved to Phoenix a few years before, sowing the seeds for some of the current problems on the board, observers claim.)

AHS began receiving territorial funds in 1897 (and state funds in 1912), and has been run haphazardly ever since, critics charge -- for example, the society didn't get around to admitting women as members until 1948.

Today, AHS' board of directors is, in Jácome and other critics' view, "completely out of control."

As a result, the Phoenix-led majority faction on the AHS board has squandered state funds on behalf of their own rather limited interests, including a $30 million new Tempe facility that was built with astonishingly little useable storage or display space for a history museum, Jácome and others complain.

The Phoenicians' self-serving actions have been to the detriment of the state government's interest in preserving and publicizing the rich and varied history of the full panoply of Arizona's towns and cities, the critics charge.

The thrust of Jácome and others' letters to the legislators was to try to persuade them to revive SB1445. However, it's a development insiders say is unlikely to occur this session.

The AHS board fired Jácome "without cause" last year, after Tucson City Councilman Steve Leal innocently made a presentation on behalf of the Rio Nuevo Project.

Leal told the board members that city officials would be delighted if they would consider moving the Historical Society's educational and interpretive programs, located in Tucson, to the city's proposed Santa Cruz riverside development.

Rio Nuevo, as it's called, would include numerous historical features, and eventually is to be built just west of downtown and the freeway, on land some archeologists claim may be among the longest continually inhabited acreage in North America, at 4,000-plus years.

Jácome served as the chairman of the City Manager's Mission San Agust'n Task Force from 1989 to 1994. The task force developed the initial feasibility plans for this cultural park. The plans were incorporated by vote of the City Council in 1991, and have since become part of the Rio Nuevo Proposition authorized by voters in November

But the ruling majority among AHS board members apparently interpreted Leal's presentation as a threat to their plans to consolidate operations in Phoenix, critics claim. It's a goal which Jácome and others consistently -- and sometimes vocally -- opposed during his 25-month tenure as director, from September, 16, 1997, to October 15, 1999.

Freelance writer Jim Hotep contributed to this article.
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