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Sewickley Valley Historical Society could expand reach

| Monday, July 17, 2017, 9:00 p.m.

A nonprofit group charged with documenting the history of the Sewickley Valley has the potential for much broader reach, some former board members said this week.

The Sewickley Valley Historical Society's recent annual election was contested, an unusual development for the community group led by an all-volunteer board of directors. Some former board members say that a long-range plan they promoted would have resulted in expanding the group's exposure and activities to reach a wider swath of the community.

“We have this quiet historical society, secluded and sequestered to a small part of the community. This community has so much to talk about, we said ‘let's do more,'” said Don Traviss, former board vice president. “We were trying to reach out to the community, particularly the young people interested in the area. A lot of people who moved here bought older homes and they wanted to learn more about their homes and the community in general.

“We had plans to raise more money and grow the organization and maybe that was too much change too quickly,” Traviss said.

Members in June elected Harton Semple, the longtime executive director, as president of the board of directors, after the previous board fired him from his longtime, part-time role running the society's day-to-day operations. The board fired Semple after he sent a letter to members dated June 4 outlining his concerns about potential changes to the Historical Society, such as expanding the new executive director's hours, adding another location to increase exposure, and bylaw updates that were under discussion.

The new board secretary is Mary Beth Pastorius, and treasurer is Connor Cogswell.

The day after the election, Semple fired executive director Karen Sebolt, hired less than three weeks prior. The board began planning for a new executive director after Semple in 2015 said he planned to retire.

“I was hired to do more fundraising, to do some grant-writing, to get the community and families more involved,” said Sebolt, who worked and volunteered for 30 years in the nonprofit sector. “I was very excited about it.”

She said Semple fired her without cause and without a vote by the board of directors. Her last day was June 29.

Former board member Dan Telep said of the Society's annual election, held in June: “There was a misinformation campaign, and it worked.” Telep, who was not seeking another spot on the board, most recently served four years.

For now, Semple is back in the office, this time volunteering as executive director until a new, part-time director is hired.

He said earlier that the goal of the historical society is to promote the group's mission, which is to “promote interest in and to record, collect, preserve, and document the history of the Sewickley Valley,” according to its website.

Gloria Berry, a founding member of the organization, said the board is seeking someone with a passion for the community and knowledge of local history to serve as the new director. She added that the group wants to ensure that the bylaws are followed and the mission remains the same.

Some former board members say they only wanted to expand the reach of the group, be more responsive to members, and bolster its ability to develop programming and keep displays.

“We are not deviating from anybody's mission, we are taking it to another level of excellence,” Telep said.

Mike Tomana, former board president, said the group developed a long-range plan over a period of years that was supported by the board. He was not a candidate for the board, after serving the maximum two terms as president.

“There was no threat resulting from deviation from the society mission. The real threat is that the society could become irrelevant due to an unwillingness to engage new residents, young people, and modern technology so as to promote awareness of the rich history of the Sewickley Valley,” he said.

He said the board was committed to creating outreach programs so people “could understand how important history is to the community that we respect.”

Residents formed the historical society in 1973. Today the group has about 400 members and office space at the old Sewickley Post Office, an historic Beaux Arts building on Broad Street that also houses Sweetwater Center for the Arts.

The group raises money through programming, donations, and book sales. The historical society had about $550,000 in assets in 2014, the most recent year available according to 990s filed with the IRS. Membership is $30 annually.

Kimberly Palmiero is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.

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