Blackened Blues

The Tucson Blues Society goes from riches to rags.

Tucson Blues Society president Lynnette Bennett says her mission is to expose as many people as possible to the blues.

But former members of the local nonprofit's board counter that she's a money-spending woman who has instead delivered a mountain of heartache by squandering funds, spoiling the group's annual Tucson Blues Festival and just plain doing the organization wrong.

These are hard times for the Blues Society, which has been helping Tucson feel the blues for nearly two decades. Since 1985, the group has organized the Tucson Blues Festival, a free day-long concert that gave local acts a chance to perform alongside blues legends such as William Clark, Smokey Wilson and Pinetop Perkins every October at Reid Park.

But next year's Tucson Blues Festival will cost as much as $20 per ticket, according to Bennett.

"We're one of the very last festivals that has to move away from it being free and we don't like to," she says. "But we have to be responsible with it."

The new admission fee is just one of many changes that have burned the biscuits of erstwhile board members. Stephen Gilsdorf, a former board president, says the current board members "haven't taken what I consider good care of the money."

Gilsdorf, who has loved the blues ever since he saw the James Cotton Blues Band play as a college student more than three decades ago, recalls that the Tucson Blues Society was in rocky financial shape when he got involved in 1989. At the time, organizers were so short on cash that one member was talking about financing the annual festival on his credit card. Hoping to avoid similar problems in the future, Gilsdorf worked with other board members to get the group's mojo working. They landed grants, got contributions from members and sold T-shirts to raise bucks, but the festival was the real shakin' money-maker, thanks to concession sales--particularly good cold beer.

It was hard work, but a lot of fun. "There was a feeling of camaraderie because we were all blues nuts and we were all thrilled about putting on a big blues festival," says Gilsdorf.

When a worn-down Gilsdorf left the board in 1999, he remembers that the group had a $20,000 certificate of deposit and another $20,000 in a money market account.

Since then, the board's membership has dwindled, as has the cash reserve. Bennett says the group has about $2,000 in the bank, although she hopes to soon get a grant worth roughly $5,000 from the Arizona Commission on the Arts.

Where has the money gone? Bennett, who has maintained control of the group's checkbook as she has moved in and out of the president's role on the board, has refused to share financial information with members who have inquired about the group's books, insisting it ain't nobody's business but her own.

While details remain sketchy, Bennett will say the money has been on a variety of projects. To begin with, there's the educational effort the group has undertaken under her leadership. Bennett believes the blues is about more than music; it's about photography, literature and drawing.

"Blues is the root of all modern music and it's the heritage of every American," she says.

The educational outreach, which includes a display that Bennett takes to local schools and blues festivals across the Southwest, has proven an expensive endeavor.

"All of these education programs, they don't generate revenue," Bennett says. "Everything we do is very cost-effective, but what we don't do anymore is projects that, for lack of a better term, generate revenue. We used to earn quite a bit from the festivals, $15,000. But we don't anymore. We don't go near--oh, man, you don't want to know."

A series of additional concerts has also shaken the money tree. "We also lost a bundle in the last year, year and a half, on concerts," Bennett says. "You eat through $12,000; it's gone in a blink of an eye."

Bennett and the board opened an office at the Muse Center for the Arts even as other once-successful fund-raising programs, such as selling a blues calendar, flopped, leaving nothing but bills, bills, bills and more bills.

"The issue is that we don't have income-generating projects, period," says Bennett. "It seemed like for a long time we'd have a $20,000 surplus year after year after year. The surplus has gone to keep the Blues Society meeting the community's needs. Whether or not there was more coming in, we still had a job to do."

Gilsdorf says the educational programs are all well and good, but the current board is riding a southbound train.

"I think the primary job of anybody in a fiduciary position in a nonprofit organization is to ensure that it's stable financially, because if you say. 'We have to go do a job,' and you go do the job and run out of money in two years, then you're never going to be able to do the job again," he says. "It would seem to me that you'd do the opposite and say, 'If we want to do this job, we've got to make sure we do some fund raising.'"

A local CPA who had long prepared the group's federal tax report on a pro-bono basis, Gilsdorf's been unable to file the required documents for the last two years because the board has failed to turn over any information to him. His most recent request was rebuffed at the December 2002 board meeting.

IRS officials confirm that no tax returns have been filed for the group since 2000. Under federal regulations, groups that fail to file face fines of $25 a day--which, if the agency choose to enforce the penalty, could leave the society facing a five-figure bill.

Bennett says she's been in contact with the IRS to straighten out the tax problem. She predicts the IRS won't apply penalties to a small nonprofit like the TBS. But the federal agency could conceivably strip the nonprofit of its tax-exempt status, meaning member contributions would no longer be tax-deductible.

Despite her refusal to open the group's books, Bennett denies that she's running the organization in a secretive manner.

"I don't know what that means," she says, maintaining she has no legal authority to share financial records with members who want to review expenses.

Attorney Bill Poorten, another former board member, says Bennett has been getting bad legal advice and could open the books any time she chooses. "When you do something like she's doing, it makes it look like you're hiding something," he says.

For John Jacobs, one of the earliest members of the Blues Society, the situation is a low-down shame.

"When Lynnette Bennett came to the TBS a few years ago, we thought she had some good ideas and welcomed her enthusiasm," says Jacobs.

But he's lost that loving feeling, registering his displeasure in a February letter.

"I have tried to resist the temptation to become angry with you," Jacobs wrote. "You exhibit contempt for anyone who disagrees with you or threatens your power. Suffice to say (my wife and I) were not alone in working countless hours to get the Society and the Blues Festival off the ground. Now it's destroyed. And you've done it. This is a sad situation."

Gilsdorf and Jacobs have joined with about 20 members of the Tucson Blues Society to form a new group, the Southern Arizona Blues and Heritage Foundation. They considered trying to wrest control of the Blues Society during the next board election in June, but they reckon the odds are against them because Bennett controls the mailing list, as well as the post office box where members send their ballots.

"Unless we can get Jimmy Carter in here to monitor this, it won't be a fair election," he says.

Besides, he adds, angry members are considering legal action against Bennett. They figure they're better off building a new organization, just as they built the Blues Society.

Bennett wishes them success.

"Another organization can only benefit the area," she says. "How can there ever be too many?"

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