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New board takes over Mukai farmhouse
A new board of directors comprised entirely of Islanders has taken over the organization that owns the Mukai farmhouse and garden, considered one of the most historically significant Japanese-American properties in the country.
The board was quietly elected at a membership meeting last week, after three Islanders — Glenda Pearson, Ellen Kritzman and Lynn Greiner — worked behind the scenes for months to find a way to replace an absentee board that they say has failed to safeguard the historic site.
As a result, Island Landmarks, the organization that holds title to Mukai, is no longer helmed by Mary Matthews, a former Islander who founded the group and who now lives in Texas. Four other board members, including Matthews’ husband and another out-of-state resident, were also removed from the board.
In their place is a new 11-member board made up of several well-known Islanders, many of whom have been actively involved in Vashon nonprofits over the years. Pearson, a University of Washington librarian, was elected president; Kritzman and Helen Meeker have been named vice presidents; Rayna Holtz is the secretary, and Yvonne Kuperberg is treasurer. Other board members are Island historian Bruce Haulman, Bob Horsley, Anita Halstead, Kelly Robinson, Sally Fox and Greiner, an attorney.
The group, several board members said, will work to ensure that the promise of the historic site is fulfilled — a vision that Matthews articulated several years ago but was never able to realize. The Mukai farmhouse, built by B.D. Mukai in 1928, and the traditional Japanese garden, designed by his wife Kuni, were purchased by Island Landmarks a decade ago with $400,000 in public grants.
Island Landmarks, according to the three women who led the effort to replace its board, has failed to care for the property or open it to the public, as promised in various grant applications. The organization is behind on its property taxes. It is no longer a nonprofit, a status that was revoked by the IRS for its failure to make annual reports. And the farmhouse is in a state of disrepair, the women said.
“I’m encouraged that we are moving again and will hopefully be able to put into action many of Mary’s ideas for what can happen here,” Pearson said Wednesday night, as she and other board members stood in front of the farmhouse. “There’s a lot of interest in this property. It remains unique in the nation.”
Kuperberg said she was in high school when Pres. Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the internment order, sending classmates of hers to internment camps. “It feels like a chance to give something back,” she said of her role on the board.
But Matthews expressed outrage over the action and said the group lacked the legal right to take over the board.
Reached last week in Texas where she lives with her husband J. Nelson Happy, a New York attorney, she also questioned whether the group has the financial wherewithal to take on the property. Matthews and Happy have paid the property taxes with their own money and make other regular payments to care for the site, she said. They also own the historic barreling plant next door — the site where Mukai cold-processed strawberries for shipment across the country.
“I think it’s really incredible that a group of people decide they can have a meeting and make up their own rules … and take over a nonprofit and take over its assets,” Matthews said.
“Who is this group of people? Do they understand how much the property costs every month just in basic expenses?” she asked.
“What a way to do things. What a way to undertake something,” she added. “I don’t even know who these people are.”
But Kritzman, Pearson and Greiner said the group is within its legal rights. They worked with Seattle lawyer Judy Andrews, an expert on nonprofit law, as they put together their plan. Three other lawyers also provided review and oversight.
“We really don’t think (Matthews) has a claim,” Greiner said. “If anything, we may have a claim against her … for dereliction of the board’s responsibility to shepherd the organization.”
The plan the group put together was both tightly orchestrated and quietly executed. The three women obtained a copy of the organization’s bylaws, written years ago by Islander Ted Kutscher — organizational rules that spell out how one becomes a member, the amount required in dues, who can call a special meeting and how notice of such a meeting must be given.
They recruited around 70 Islanders to become members of Island Landmarks, all of whom paid $25 in dues. Kritzman, who was on Island Landmarks’ founding board, had an old treasurer’s report and thus knew that organization’s bank and account number, enabling her to deposit the checks from the new members before the special meeting was organized.
The special meeting was then called by 12 members, or more than 10 percent of the membership, again a requirement of the bylaws. The group sent out a notice to the membership, including Matthews and the four other board members, two of whom — Ken and Ellen DeFrang — live next door to the farmhouse, ensuring everyone received the mandatory 24 hours notice.
The DeFrangs opted not to attend, said Ken DeFrang, who acts as the property’s caretaker. Matthews acknowledged that she received notice of the meeting and also did not attend.
The notice said that the meeting was being called “for the purpose of developing a plan to revitalize the restoration and preservation” of the farmhouse and garden, “including replacing the present board of directors by a newly elected board who will move this project forward and fulfill the mission of making this property an historic and cultural community asset.”
At the meeting, held last Monday night at the Land Trust Building, Pearson gave a PowerPoint presentation about the historical significance of the property; she also handed out a one-page list of the “top 10 reasons why Island Landmarks needs a new board of directors,” noting that it’s behind on its property taxes, the lack of regular board meetings and the farmhouse’s “sad state of disrepair.”
Islander Steve Brown made a motion to replace the board with the new group, 11 Islanders who ran as a slate. It passed 69-0, Kritzman said. When the new board was announced, the group applauded, she said.
The new board is considered interim until the organization’s annual meeting is held next April.
The effort caps a long and sometimes contentious effort on several Islanders’ part to wrest control of the historic farmhouse and garden from Matthews, considered by some a visionary champion of historic preservation but who struggled to administer the project and kept it under tight control.
Two years ago, after Matthews put both the farmhouse and the barreling plant on the market for $799,000, a group of Islanders — with support from 4Culture, King County’s cultural arts agency, and several other conservation organizations — tried to broker a deal with her. The plan was to dissolve Island Landmarks, sell the house to the Puget Sound Zen Center and use the proceeds from the sale for a conservation group to purchase the barreling plant.
Matthews ultimately de-clined the deal.
A few months later, 4Culture asked the state Attorney General to dissolve the nonprofit for what it called the organization’s “utter failure to fulfill its vision.” The Attorney General opted not to step in, noting other solutions to the impasse seemed possible.
Reached last week, an official at 4Culture said her agency was happy to learn of the turn of events.
“We’re pleased that that kind of grassroots interest is so strong and that it bubbled up. We look forward to working with a viable organization,” said Flo Lentz, who heads the agency’s historic preservation program. “It’ll be good to have local stewards who are close to the property and can care for it and re-invigorate that public purpose that the organization had when it was founded.”
The new board, meanwhile, says it plans to hold regular meetings, issue minutes and invite Islanders to become members.
“One of the watchwords of this new board is transparency,” said Haulman.
Meeker agreed, adding, “We have to re-establish Island Landmarks as a functioning organization.”
The new board will hold a community-wide open house from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. on Monday at the Mukai property, located at 18017 107th Ave. S.W. At 7 p.m., the board will meet to discuss next steps. All are welcome to attend that meeting as well.