Commissioners asking museum boss to resign; her answer due Friday

Jun 14, 2012 By Christina George, Staff Writer

Ongoing controversy regarding Carol Thiesse's management of the museum is interfering with operations, the elected leaders wrote.

Fremont County Commissioners want Lander's Pioneer Museum director to resign amid an ongoing controversy over the way she is managing the taxpayer-funded institution.

Commissioners made the request to Fremont County Pioneer Museum director Carol Thiesse in a letter dated June 1 that they unanimously approved during their meeting June 5.

The commission wants an answer by Friday, June 15.

"The Fremont County Commissioners have become aware of numerous allegations of problems concerning the way the Lander Museum is being managed," the letter to Thiesse states.

"We are not making judgments on these allegations. However, the fact is relationships with many of the local supporters of the Museum and yourself are bad. We have given you many chances to improve these relations and there appears to be no way to mend or improve the situation," according to the letter.

The commission wrote it believes Thiesse's resignation by July 1 would be in the best interest of the county. The board asked her to respond officially to the resignation request by June 15.

"Please remember that all employees of Fremont County Government are 'at-will,'" the letter states.

The commission's resignation request follows criticism made in the last several months by some in the community.

During the commission's meeting June 5, vice chairman Pat Hickerson said, "In light of all the allegations about the museum director ... our attorneys and myself have drafted up the letter."

"The concerns I have are the ongoing operations of the Lander Museum," Hickerson said.

The problems involving the museum director are affecting its operation, he continued.

"The museum staff is essentially alienated from the community and a lot of the support out there," he said. With funding for the operation facing decreases, "museums typically depend on volunteers."

At last week's commission meeting, Hickerson made the motion to approve the letter to Thiesse. Commissioner Travis Becker seconded the motion, which passed unanimously.

"We have made numerous attempts to address the situation," said commission chairman Doug Thompson at the meeting June 5.

Thompson noted "animosity" in the community involving the museum that he said "has reached an irreconcilable position."

The commission has asked the Fremont County Museums Board to address the issue, but the group has failed to act, Thompson said.

"In their defense, they have two museums that are functioning very well," he said, referring to operations in Riverton and Dubois.

Tom Duncan, chairman of the museums board, which has the authorization to hire and fire museum directors, declined to comment about the letter because it involves personnel matters.

"I'm disappointed that the county commission has yielded to a small but vocal group who has assailed the commission with misinformation, which the commission appears to trust more than the information that comes from the board it appointed," Duncan said.


Hickerson later said that one of the driving forces behind the resignation request was the county's financial picture.

"Museums traditionally have always been, to some extent, supported by volunteers and communities," Hickerson said. "That situation is definitely splintered in Lander."

The letter touches on the county's budget, noting Fremont County will face "tough economic challenges" in the future, and "funding for the County Museums is not likely to increase in the near future."

"In order to achieve its full potential, the new Pioneer Museum will need alternate sources of funding and volunteer help. Both of these will require strong community support, which does not seem to be possible under your direction," the letter to Thiesse states.

Thiesse has worked at the Pioneer Museum on and off since 1997. In October 2008, the museums board unanimously voted to hire Thiesse to serve as director, less than two months after she took over as interim director.

The Pioneer Museum is a county-owned facility located on property adjacent to the Museum of the American West in Lander.

It became county property in 1964 when it couldn't afford the tax assessment after the streets were paved near its former location in the 600 block of Lincoln Street.

The all-volunteer Fremont County Pioneer Association has helped raise funds to assist with the Pioneer Museum's operations, including the land acquisition and facility near MAW.

MAW was established in 1998 and is a nonprofit museum. Although the museums are adjacent to one another, they are separate entities.


When she took over as director nearly four years ago, Thiesse said she wanted the facility to "be a fantastic museum for this community and for this county" and wanted "a place for the community to be 'proud of.'"

However, over the years, many residents have voiced dissatisfaction with her leadership.

A few weeks ago, a citizens group met to discuss the current situation at the museum and concerns about Thiesse's management.

Late last summer, the commission sent a letter to the museums board stating it wanted to see "noticeable improvement" with the Pioneer Museum leadership because of the poor relationship it had with MAW and the pioneer association.

Hickerson said the continuing situation has put the public in the middle.

"Sometimes the general public who use either facility gets caught in the crossfires, which is totally unfair to them," he said. "They are not getting along, and that affects the public access and their ability to use either facility, and it's not fair to the public to pay the price for them not getting along and working together."

The recent letter from the commission thanked Thiesse for the progress the museum has made under her direction, which Hickerson echoed.

"I think Carol has done some pretty good things in her tenure, like the cataloging," he said. "But the entities are at odds with each other, and it's a serious concern for me."

Hickerson said a plan has not been established in the event Thiesse does not resign.

"We'll have to cross that bridge when it comes," he said. "If she refuses to resign, we will have to consider what to do next. But (asking for the resignation) is the easiest way to help the situation."

"We want to move ahead and rebuild relationships," he said.

Staff writer Martin Reed contributed to this report.

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