Guest opinion: A call for change unheeded

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Pictured above, a recent photo of the Seal Beach Historical Society’s Red Car Museum. Photo by Elizabeth Kane

Raise your hand if you have walked or driven by the Red Car in the last several years and wondered why something has not been done to fix it? I know I look out my home windows every single day and have to see it falling apart piece by piece. So, what’s up? I will share as best as I can the mess that is the leadership of the Seal Beach Historical Society (SBHS) and why nothing of value will be done, maybe for years to come if nothing changes.

The Seal Beach Historical Society owns and manages the Red Car along with all donated historical records people have given through the years. Chartered as a 501(c)3 non-profit in 1971, its stated charter is “to promote, foster, and cultivate the preservation of data and artifacts bearing upon the municipality of Seal Beach.”

However, the land is owned and leased from the city and that is where the city’s impact ends. The city can require (and does) that the Red Car be maintained as a safe structure. Currently it is not safe and the city has requested that it be fixed. In 2019, some work was done on the exterior ironworks that had become sharp, loose and unsafe.

Had someone climbed or leaned on it and ended up hurt or cut, it would have been detrimental. This work, however, is only the small tip of the iceberg of work needed. The roof leaks (thus the “forever bonnet” that is on top), the wood is termite eaten and the entire car needs the evaluation and help of a restoration specialist to hope to keep it viable. Basically, it’s an unsafe eyesore.

But one of the problems is that there is no money for this type of work because the current leadership does not engage with this community, has steadily lost membership and much needed revenues.

Their last tax filing from 2018 showed that they had only $15,500 in total assets and revenues of only $1,300 that year. (Form 990EZ). (Editor’s note: Generally, by law, IRS Forms 990 and 990EZ are public records.) This is barely enough to keep the organization running let alone begin to cover the tens of thousands of dollars a proper overhaul will require.

The SBHS website has not been maintained or updated since 2015 (sbhs-redcarmuseum.com), and there is no information or links on applying for membership that would work to bring more people to the membership roster. Our household has been a member for years up until this year when we did not get a renewal letter and as of this writing, no one has reached out to ask us why our membership was not renewed.

The more pressing issue is that for the past many years, the current directors, Charles and Marie Antos and their granddaughter Monique Atwood, have held an iron fist on the organization, turning away would be members that they do not like, not holding annual member meetings as stated in the charter, conducting no outreach to members who fall away, and refusing to allow others with fresh ideas to come into the fold.

Neither Charles nor Marie lives in Seal Beach at all, but in Rocklin, California, outside of Sacramento. They have been there since January. How can they be overseeing anything under these circumstances?

So, what’s the point? On August 21, 2020, a petition signed by 58 current and lifetime members of the SBHS, former members and concerned residents, was sent to the directors requesting they call a Members meeting and allow for a vote for new leadership.

The organization deserves leadership that is local and capable of doing all that will be needed to to not only restore the Red Car, but bring our community’s history back to life and accessible to everyone. Last week, an unsigned response letter was sent to all petitioners claiming that the years of neglect and decline of the Red Car is solely due to COVID-19 and that they have not been allowed to work on it as a result. The letter did not bother to address the requests of the petitioners for a members meeting at all, ignoring the request completely.

COVID has certainly thrown a wrench in many things, but this is not one of them. The demise of the Red Car and the non-profit has been happening for years, with many people asking the Antos’ to allow new blood into the organization to no avail. It is unconscionable that they continue to shut the door in the face of those who want to restore it. There is a long, sad history behind that, but suffice it to say, if something is not done soon to get new leadership at the helm who are capable of working with others to raise the kind of funds needed and arrange for the level of work, we are going to lose it all.

There is already great concern among a number of residents who donated archives, photos, and other valuables that these items have now disappeared as the Antos’ not only allowed one break-in on their storage unit, but three. These are pieces of our city’s history and heritage that will never be replaced, and yet, those who had donated items were never informed that their items are now permanently lost.

The purpose of this information is to expose to the community the reality behind what is happening and why you should, if you love our little town, be concerned about the future of our history and heritage being available to see and share for future generations. My heart breaks every time I look out the window when the Red Car should be open and see people wanting to get in and learn about us. So much time and too many years have already been lost waiting on the Antos’ to do the right thing for the SBHS and the community.

If you are concerned about the future of our history and seeing a change, I would urge you to call (562-430-1450) or email (sbhsredcarmuseum@gmail.com) the current leadership and voice your concern and displeasure or sign our online petition at change.org/SaveSealBeachHistory. You can also visit our blog and information site at: SaveSealBeachHistory.wordpress.com for more information.

I don’t know what it is going to take in the end to make a change, but I hope that this little bit of enlightenment will spark a bigger fire to demand a change that has so far gone unheeded.