By Philip Haldiman
Peoria resident and U.S. Army veteran Ken Johnson, 85, had plans last year to display items from his time in the service at an event honoring veterans.
But that didn’t happen because his artifacts are on display at the Peoria Arizona Historical Society, which has been under lock and key due to an internal dispute within the society itself.
Mr. Johnson, however, may soon be reunited with his keepsakes.
A dispute over rightful control of the society between two opposing factions landed in court earlier this year. As the two sides battle it out with little hinting at a resolution, the city has stepped in to reclaim the properties it has been leasing to the society for a number of years.
The museum facilities have remained closed and all historic artifacts are out of sight — and out of reach from their lenders.
Earlier this year, the city stepped in and requested the two sides find some sort of compromise, but with no progress, Peoria has now taken back its buildings — and control of the artifacts within them.
Mr. Johnson said he is grateful his family’s memorabilia will be returned to him, but he would rather see the museum remain open as a historical tribute to the early settlers of the city of Peoria.
It’s a shame the museum will no longer be open to the public for others to enjoy the artifacts, many of them more than 100 years old, and what’s more concerning is many people who donated items are no longer around, and it will be hard to locate the original owners or next of kin, he said.
“The Peoria Historical Society was a place where visitors could learn about the history of the city of Peoria, and get a glimpse of what life was like for the farmers and others who called Peoria their home,” Mr. Johnson said.
“Every year, hundreds of visitors and school-aged children visited the museum and got a first-hand account of life in the early 1900s. The artifacts that were donated to the museum are rich in history and tell meaningful stories of Peoria’s early days, and you just don’t see things like this anymore.”
Because of the protracted battle between the splintered PAHS groups, the city terminated the museum lease and now plans to properly inventory and preserve the artifacts housed in the facilities and return them to the rightful owners
The city made multiple phone calls and sent follow-up letters to request PAHS submit a plan to manage and remove the historic items and artifacts, according to a letter sent to the parties’ attorneys dated July 11, 2019.
Details of the plan should have included taking inventory and care for the contents of the buildings, returning contents to their rightful owners where appropriate, establishing the disposition of items, and donating items not returned to owners who cannot be located.
City Attorney Vanessa Hickman said no plan of any kind has either been submitted or discussed with the city, nor has there been a comprehensive agreement by PAHS on a methodology of addressing the artifacts in the buildings, according to a city document.
Effective July 23, when the lease terminated, the city began a plan to manage and remove the items.
Ms. Hickman stated in the letter to the two parties’ lawyers that as the tenant, PAHS is responsible for removal of all contents upon termination, but this did not happen.
She cited Chapter 3, Title 33 of the Arizona Revised Statutes.
“Upon termination, PAHS must surrender the premises and remove all persons and contents. Failure to surrender authorizes the city to enter and remove all such contents. The removal and storage of the artifacts would be at the cost of PAHS,” the letter stated.
In January 2019, the city notified PAHS that the lease will terminate in 180 days and they must move out of the museum.
PAHS did not act in any way, so the city will seek all remedies available, by law and equity, provided in the lease and authorized by Arizona law, according to the letter.
“As the landlord, the city intends to exercise all rights and privileges under Arizona law upon termination of the lease. PAHS does not have permission to occupy the buildings after the termination date as a holdover tenant,” the letter stated.
The city of Peoria has no authority over the society, but has leased the museum property to PAHS dating back to the 1990s.
PAHS is tasked with controlling the day-to-day operations of the museum in Old Town Peoria, which includes five buildings — Peoria Central School Museum, Office Workshop, Business and Government Museum, Agricultural Museum and the Peoria Jail House. The artifacts within the museum are either property owned by PAHS or loaned by residents and others.
The two splintered groups have a number of long-time allegations against each other including unauthorized members attempting to access the nonprofit’s bank account, stolen artifacts and others.
The two groups retained lawyers to fight it out in court, and Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Pamela Gates in a pre-trial motion June 17 denied both sides’ requests for partial summary judgments, leaving the dispute unresolved.
David Brnilovich, attorney for one group, could not be reached for comment.
Frank Mead, attorney for the other group, said the city required the two groups claiming to be PAHS and tenants of the museum facilities to work together with the city on a process for returning the artifacts and donated items.
Mr. Mead said he reached out to the city, but the two parties could not agree on much of anything during the continued litigation.
“It’s difficult to understand why the city would request the groups to try and cooperate on such an intricate and involved process. My concern is the city is not familiar with the record keeping issues — my clients are — but the city politely rejected our efforts to help,” he said.
“The city could open itself up to potential claims from those who donated property if that property is damaged or not returned during the city’s unilateral attempt to take control of the property controlled by PAHS and return that property to those who loaned it to the historical society.”
The city will retain a museum expert, experienced in small museums, certified collections, and an expert in managing, archiving, and storing artifacts. The expert will guide the city to ensure the protection and preservation of all of the historic items and artifacts contained within the buildings, according to the letter.
“The assistance of the expert is intended to properly label for identification, catalogue, properly wrap and package for storage, the historic items and artifacts in an appropriate environment,” the letter stated.
The two PAHS groups have been at odds since at least 2017 and filed suit in superior court in January. The museum has been closed for more than two years, lying dormant, placing a respected and prized community resource out of reach, according to the Peoria attorney’s office.
“The city firmly believes in properly managing and preserving the important historic items and artifacts that have been carefully gathered over the years. The city does not plan to raze or alter any of the buildings that contained PAHS items and artifacts, as these buildings are historically significant structures,” the letter stated.
“Moreover, the city will not destroy, discard, or damage any of the treasured historic items contained in the buildings, which authenticate the rich history of Peoria.”
Eva Osuna is a member of PAHS and resident with roots that run deep in the city. She has been active in the community and a board member of PAHS.
She has family artifacts in the museum and wonders how the city will determine rightful owners of perhaps thousands of items stored in the buildings.
The division within our community is a sad state to be in for all of us,” Ms. Osuna said.
“There is so much that has happened with the now defunct historical society,” she said. “It is a real shame for the desperate and unethical means in which a group went to oversee PAHS, to end up with nothing for our community to preserve our historical roots.”
Philip Haldiman can be reached at 623-876-3697, firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Twitter @philiphaldiman.