- Associated Press - Monday, January 20, 2014

IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) - Trial is set for Tuesday in a lawsuit seeking to prevent a Girl Scouts council from selling four eastern Iowa camps without the approval of members.

The first case of its kind in Iowa, the trial in Davenport will highlight an emotional debate that has roiled local Girl Scouts organizations across the country as they try to sell aging camps.

Council leaders say maintaining the properties has become a financial drain at a time when young girls are less interested in camping. Defenders insist the traditional camping experience is central to the organization’s mission and must be preserved. The debate has played out through protests, divisive meetings, board elections and lawsuits.

The Iowa dispute dates to last year, when the Girl Scouts of Eastern Iowa and Western Illinois considered a plan to sell Camp Conestoga near Davenport, Camp Little Cloud near Dubuque, Camp L-Kee-Ta near Burlington, and Camp Tahigwa near Decorah.

The property committee of the Bettendorf-based nonprofit argued the sales were necessary to shore up its finances because the camps were losing hundreds of thousands of dollars amid declining attendance and interest from members. Supporters of the sales said that money could be better spent on other activities.

But the plan drew an intense backlash from members who had fond memories of spending time at camps operated by the group since the 1940s. Five of them - Debra Stork, Sherry O’Keefe, Kelly Gilhooly, Lisa Tank and Michele Weber - filed the lawsuit arguing the camps could not be put up for sale without a vote of the organization’s full membership.

Amid the backlash, the board approved a plan to keep the camps open. The plan calls for turning Camp Conestoga into a modern residential camp through a major renovation and selling off “underutilized” parts of the other three sites in the future.

Still, the legal challenge has moved forward. The plaintiffs are seeking an order declaring that the council needs approval from a vote of its membership before the camps could be sold in the future. The council has about 20,000 members, including 5,600 who are considered voting members.

District Judge Marlita Greve is expected to hear the non-jury trial at the Scott County Courthouse.

In a ruling last month, Greve rejected the Girl Scouts of Eastern Iowa and Western Illinois’ claim that the lawsuit was moot because of its decision to back off the sales. She said she should decide the dispute now to avoid similar litigation in the future.

At issue is an Iowa law that requires nonprofit corporations to have the approval of their boards and voting members to sell “all, or substantially all” of their properties. The council argues the four camp properties - a combined 950 acres of land - do not meet that threshold since they only made up less than 30 percent of its $8 million in assets as of September 2012.

The plaintiffs question that statistic, and argue the camps make up a majority of the council’s property. More broadly, they say that selling the camps would fundamentally change the purpose of the group since camping has been its “heart and soul” for decades.

The Girl Scouts of Eastern Iowa and Western Illinois deny that, noting that camping is not mentioned in its articles of incorporation. The group argues that its mission is to “build girls of courage, confidence and character” and it says that can be achieved through other activities.

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