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County looks ready to fire either museums board or Lander director

Aug 17, 2012 - By Martin Reed, Staff Writer

Fremont County commissioners are close to terminating the embattled Pioneer Museum director in Lander and possibly the board governing the institution as well, due to inaction on commission demands in the matter.

In a highly rare maneuver on Aug. 14, commission chairman Doug Thompson temporarily stepped down from his leadership role in order to make a motion to terminate the county museums board members.

Commissioner Keja Whiteman seconded Thompson's motion, which ultimately failed by a 3-2 vote.

Instead, the museums board members are facing an ultimatum from the commission: terminate Pioneer Museum director Carol Thiesse or face the same fate themselves.

"I think if they will address the situation satisfactorily and work on a long-term solution to that, I think that would go a long ways toward -- I guess it would be better in my mind," Thompson said.

"They've got two other museums that are functioning well and have good relations. It's not that they are totally dysfunctional. They have failed to address this problem satisfactorily," he said.

The museums board has scheduled a special meeting for Wednesday, Aug. 22, in Lander.

"We're going to have an emergency meeting, and it will consist of an executive session for personnel," museums board member Steve Banks said Friday.

If the museums board continues to keep Thiesse in opposition of ongoing demands for her resignation, the group will likely face termination at the commission's meeting on Aug. 28.

"It's hard to predict what others might do, but I would be supportive of removing the board and moving ahead with a different board," commission vice chairman Pat Hickerson said on Friday.

Hickerson and commissioners Dennis Christensen and Travis Becker voted against immediately terminating the board. "My assumption is that vote may change if the present board doesn't take action," Hickerson said.

Either way, it appears significant changes are imminent for Thiesse and the museums board.

"I think there may be some changes on the board anyway, but that will kind of shake out afterward," Thompson said. "We just want the problem solved, bottom line. I'm sure there will be accompanying litigation."

In an interview Friday, Thiesse said the issues surrounding her are the same that affected other county leaders in similar posts in years past.

"They've done this so many times," Thiesse said, pointing to departures of past Fremont County Library Systems director Jill Rourke and Todd Guenther, former director of the Pioneer Museum.

"That doesn't speak well for the community. We had one librarian that stayed for quite a while, but then just about every library director since, they've worn them out," Thiesse said.

Concerning the situation at hand, Thiesse said she told the museums board members, "Whatever everybody wants to do, that's fine. There's absolutely no proof of anything. ... There's just all unsubstantiated allegations."

Thiesse said critics continue to make allegations of wrongdoing without proof.

"It's real easy when you don't have any documentation to say whatever you want. But unfortunately the commissioners never felt that anything needed to be proved," she said.

A move to terminate the museums board would follow the same action the commission took in May 2004 to dismiss the group after it fired Guenther during a closed-door executive session in violation of Wyoming law.

Commissioners at the time assumed all museums board responsibilities until appointing new members. The same could happen with the potential action.

"My belief -- and I don't believe it was inappropriate -- was that if the commission dismissed the museum board, it would take over those activities," Thompson said.

"The statutes place the hiring and firing of personnel within the purview of the museums board. Now if in my mind, if we dismiss the board and we become the board, we have that authority," he said.

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

Commissioners, in a letter to Thiesse dated June 1, asked for her resignation over ongoing complaints about her service at the museum.

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

"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.

Commissioners wrote "it is in the best interests of the County, and the Pioneer Museum, if you would resign from your position" by July 1. "Please remember that all employees of Fremont County Government are 'at will,'" the letter states.

Hickerson during the commission's June 5 discussion on the letter said, "The museum staff is essentially alienated from the community and a lot of the support out there" over the issue.

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

At a meeting in May at the Pronghorn Lodge, about six concerned citizens from the Lander area voiced their complaints about Thiesse's management of the museum.

"That museum down there is negative," Pronghorn owner Jim Gibson said at the meeting. "It should be an ambassador for this area, and I don't understand why the Fremont County Commission doesn't heal the negative that's in this community."

The commission appears ready to resolve the controversy surrounding Thiesse.

"You want that appointed board to kind of do their own business, and we've asked them for a long time to rectify the position in Lander, and that's kind of what it's all about," Christensen said.

"We've got two museums that are functioning fairly well in the county," he said. "The Lander one seems to be the problem child right now."

Hickerson said it's time for action to happen.

"We'd like to see her move on to a different job and the museum to look for a new manager out there," he said.

"As liaison (to the museums board), I will do everything I can to make sure we pick a new director, heal some of the strife going on out there, and improve the situation. Our concern, obviously, is the way the museum is working with local representatives and museum supporters. There's certainly a lot of animosity between all the groups," he said.

Bringing a new director on board will help settle issues, Hickerson said.

"We think a little local museum has to have community support. It doesn't mean everyone gets everything they want. At least they should work together professionally. It shouldn't be fighting and threats in the newspaper. It shouldn't be run that way," he said.

If the museums board keeps Thiesse, whether the commission would terminate her or appoint a new group to take action has not been decided.

"Again, it's hard to speculate what we'll end up doing ultimately," Hickerson said. "I would just like to get it done and start the healing; that's my concern. It's probably a case of the sooner we can get it accomplished, the better."

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