Throwing away Schaefer's legacy

Our view: Contradicting the late mayor's wishes diminishes his foundation's influence

July 28, 2011

If Lainy LeBow-Sachs and Zelig Robinson want to kick off the third member of the new William Donald Schaefer Foundation — longtime friend of the deceased mayor and governor, Gene Raynor — they probably have the power to do it. It is a private foundation, they control two-thirds of the votes on the board, and if they believe the first order of business ought to be to shrink the governing body from three to two, with Mr. Raynor being the unwilling casualty, there's not much anyone can do about it. Nonetheless, it is a bad idea.

From a purely practical standpoint, having a two-member board raises the potential for problems if there is ever a disagreement between Ms. LeBow-Sachs and Mr. Robinson about how to discharge the foundation's $1.3 million in assets. That problem is compounded by the fact that Mr. Robinson, who was Mr. Schaefer's long-time attorney, also intends to serve as counsel to the foundation. Since he would presumably recuse himself from deciding on his own contract, that leaves the matter entirely in the hands of one person, hardly a recipe for good governance. That problem aside, having one of only two board members serve as the foundation's lawyer contradicts the purpose of legal counsel. It means there would potentially be no one outside of the foundation's governing body who is providing independent analysis and advice about its decisions.

But the bigger problem is that removing Mr. Raynor from the board appears to directly contradict Mr. Schaefer's wishes, as expressed in his will. Whether that's right or wrong on a personal level, it certainly diminishes the ability of the foundation to exert influence far beyond what its relatively meager endowment would allow.

Assets of $1.3 million may be a lot for an average person to contemplate, and it is certainly a major bequest from someone who spent his entire life in public service and lived frugally. But it is a pittance compared to the big foundations in town. The Abell Foundation has more than $260 million in assets, for example, and the Weinberg Foundation, according to its most recent tax return, conducts more than $100 million a year in charitable activities.

The Schaefer Foundation's potential lies less in the dollar amounts of whatever grants it makes than in its ability to embody the vision and spirit of its benefactor. Mr. Schaefer's greatest successes came from his ability to marshal the support of the city's most powerful people and institutions behind his ideas, and his foundation, if it is viewed as a true continuation of his legacy, could do the same thing. That's less likely if the foundation board's first action is a direct contradiction of Mr. Schaefer's instructions.

This is not the first time Ms. LeBow Sachs has substituted her judgment for Mr. Schaefer's. She was the one who engineered his move into the Charleston retirement community — distracting him by taking him out to lunch while the movers emptied out his townhouse. At the time, it seemed necessary and even a bit charming. The former governor's health was not what it had been, and his protestations after the fact sounded like they were calculated for comic effect. But in this case, there is no obvious reason to overrule the boss' intentions — after all, just as surely as Ms. LeBow-Sachs and Mr. Robinson can remove Mr. Raynor from the board, they can outvote him if they ever disagree. And this time, Mr. Schaefer cannot give his blessing after the fact.

It's no secret that Mr. Schaefer pitted his friends and aides against each other. An uncharitable interpretation of that trait would be that he loved for people to compete for his affection, but it also created tension that spurred everyone involved to work harder for the good of the city or the state. Now that Mr. Schaefer is gone, affection is no longer his to give. But we can only assume that he knew what he was doing when he put together a board whose members don't always see eye-to-eye.

Following Mr. Schaefer's written and legally executed wishes, no matter how maddening they may seem to those involved, is the only sure way for his foundation to play a continuing role in securing and expanding his legacy. Ms. LeBow-Sachs and Mr. Robinson can remove Mr. Raynor if they want, but in so doing, they would ensure that the mayor for life's last gift to the city he loved fades into obscurity.

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