Santa Barbara on fire – against board of trustees of botanic garden

Posted on | June 18, 2009 | No Comments

visitor_mission_01The Santa Barbara Botanic Garden was developed to showcase native plants and the natural beauty of California. Source: SBBG

THE MAY fire that damaged an estimated two thirds of the 65-acre Santa Barbara Botanic Garden masks deeper damage being done by the garden’s Board of Trustrees, claimed an article in Saturday’s Santa Barbara Independent and responded to today by the garden’s Chairman of the Board, former Arizona Governor Fife Symington.

Every public garden has its politics, but the castigation came from one of the best known names in California horticulture, Owen Dell, Santa Barbara landscape architect* and author of Sustainable Landscaping for Dummies.

In the article, Dell claimed that the current board of trustees has squandered resources on costly land acquisition, constructed a controversial folly that divided the community, operated with a board missing seven of the legally required 15 trustees and concentrated spending on high salaries for an elite clutch of executives.

According to Dell, “the Garden’s top seven staff members took home 43 percent of the total compensation, and the top three claimed 24 percent.”

Outrage over the compensation for the top three staff members erupted in mid-April, after the board announced job cuts for a quarter of the garden’s staff, including the loss of Carol Bornstein, one of California’s pre-eminent experts in native horticulture. Core to the mission of the garden is advancement of understanding of native plants.

The firings were followed by a strike among volunteers, including “volunteer of the year,” and demands from a volunteer group for representation on the board and access to its records. 

The garden trustees have responded by publishing the volunteers’ letters (linked here and here) along with responses from Chairman Symington.

After an overwhelming response to the Dell piece in the Independent among Santa Barbara bloggers, the former Arizona governor today published yet a further response in defense of his board and executives saying,  “Under their leadership the Garden has substantially elevated its professional posture among peer institutions.”

It’s the volunteers and bloggers at the Santa Barbara Independent who can’t seem to see the success story.  Nearly a week after Dell’s opinion piece appeared in the Independent, comments keep flowing into it supporting his contention that “the current top management team that has brought disgrace, financial ruin, community discord, and internal unrest to the institution they were hired to manage and protect must be dismissed and never again be allowed to take part in Garden affairs.”

This posting was edited on Friday, June 19, 2009.

*CORRECTION: A previous version called Owen Dell a landscape designer. He is a landscape architect.

UPDATE:  A June 19, 2009 letter in the Santa Barbara Independent from Lanny Ebenstein, a former Santa Barbara School Board member and professor of economics at UCSB, calls for the sacking of Ed Schneider, the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden’s President and CEO. Schneider along with the Garden’s Board of Trustees have been pursuing a costly “Vital Mission Plan” involving millions of dollars of construction. At the same time, the Garden has been firing key educational staff and, argues Ebenstein, forgetting that naturalism was at the center of the garden’s mission. “Before the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden [was established in the 1930s], the prevailing approach of botanic gardens was the display of plant species imported from around the world in artificial groupings. By way of contrast, the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden was intended to present native California plants in the most natural setting possible. Trails of the historic Santa Barbara Botanic Garden were earthen paths, railings and fences were made of natural tree branches, natural stones were used for steps, signs were made of carved wood, and buildings were diminutive and unobtrusive. Every single one of these elements would be compromised or eliminated through the vital mission plan. The natural devastation wrought by the Jesusita fire reflects the worldly devastation the Garden has experienced in recent years.”

This posting was updated on Sunday June 21, 2009.

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