ABOUT 50 YEARS ago, a little old lady named Mabel Chandler wanted to leave her house to the city of Nashua on the condition that it be used as the city library. She didn’t hope they would use it as the library, she insisted upon it. If the city stopped using the house as a library, she directed it be given back to her estate. The city considered rejecting the gift because of the restrictions but decided in the end to take it..Now 50 years later, someone thought “wouldn’t it be great if the gift didn’t have those restrictions and we could just sell the house and use the money?” The obvious solution was to pretend the restriction was “obsolete” and just act as if it didn’t exist. The city pretends to meet the “spirit” of the gift by using the cash to renovate the main library building and claim the old gift was impractical..If this were done within a few years of the gift, it would be criminal, thoughtless and outrageous. In truth, it still is. The passage of time doesn’t change the clear intention of the donor; it merely emboldens the officials who want the gift to be different.
They try to cover their tracks by pointing to impractical gifts like the woman who left money to be used to buy the poor ice for their iceboxes. Ice is no longer bought for nonexistent iceboxes. But Nashua could still have a library in the house. If the city chose not to use the mansion as a library, it should be returned. But the librarian wants to have his cake and eat it too, so the city contemplates an action that every child will be able to throw in his parent’s face to show that cheaters really do, in fact, prosper..Sadly the Nashua librarian is not alone in his ethical blindness. Unfortunately, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Manchester (my church) went down this same softly descending road itself. Years ago a prominent adherent left his house to the church on the condition it be used as the residence of the bishop of Manchester. Recently, the bishop decided to move into a more humble quarter (a noble gesture). One of his bean counters decided the church would sell the residence. If they used the proceeds to pay for living expenses of the bishop, they could make a straight-faced argument that they met the terms of the gift because the sale of the house underwrote living expenses which is kind of, sort of, like living in it..After the embarrassment of making that argument in public and considering whether they could make it with a straight face to St. Peter, the church dropped the scheme.
Lest the Nashua librarian didn’t notice the Manchester example, he might look down the road to the unbuilt Nashua train station. In a fit of wide-eyed optimism, the transportation commissars decided it would be grand for Massachusetts commuter trains to come up to Nashua. The first problem: how to pay for a train station?
The transportation department didn’t have any money in the budget, but its officials thought “wouldn’t it be great if we could use highway money for a train station?” Decades ago a constitutional amendment created a state highway trust fund to make sure the gas tax was used to maintain state highways and for nothing else. The state argued that building a train station is sort of like maintaining a highway because it might reduce traffic. This was too much for even our flexible Supreme Court, which decided that if the legislators who passed the amendment had intended gas taxes to fund train stations they wouldn’t have used the word “highways.”
So some contracts are being kept. The court has ruled the highway trust fund really is for highways. The church backed away from breaking its promise to a donor.
The temptations are great, but the ethical course is clear even for the Nashua librarian. It really would be great if Mrs. Chandler didn’t put a restriction on her gift and you could sell it and use the proceeds for your project. But she did, so you can’t.