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Museums board fires Lander director

Aug 28, 2012 - By Christina George, Staff Writer

After months of controversy surrounding the management of the Lander Pioneer Museum, the Fremont County Museums Board voted Wednesday to terminate director Carol Thiesse.

"Unfortunately, the museums board has caved to political pressure," Thiesse said after being dismissed. "Both the museums board and the commissioners know full well the Pioneer Museum has been run professionally, efficiently and successfully."

During the meeting at the county courthouse in Lander, the museums board appointed Joe Spriggs to serve as interim director until a permanent replacement is found.

However, later the same day, board members Steve Banks and Jon Lane called Spriggs during a staff meeting at the Pioneer Museum and learned their selection didn't want the job.

"He refused to take the position," Banks said. "Joe absolutely refused. He said, 'If Carol's gone, then he's gone.'"

Banks said the museums board selected Spriggs as interim director at the recommendation of county commission chairman Doug Thompson. Banks said Thompson made the suggestion without speaking with Spriggs.

"His reaction was one of total surprise," Banks said about Spriggs.

Thompson said another commissioner suggested Spriggs in the context of keeping the museum open.

"It was suggested that perhaps Joe Spriggs might take the interim since he's there," Thompson said. "All it was, was how we were going to keep the museum open in the interim, and existing employees were the first (priority)."

"Plus, Joe has a lot of experience there, and so his name came up," Thompson said. "But it wasn't suggested to approach Joe. It was just in the context of keeping the museum open."

Special meeting

Wednesday's decision to terminate Thiesse follows commissioners nearly voting to dismiss museums board members if the situation with the Pioneer Museum was not resolved.

At the Aug. 14 commission meeting, Thompson temporarily stepped down as chairman to make a motion to terminate the county museums board members. Commissioner Keja Whiteman seconded the motion, but it ultimately failed by a 3-2 vote.

Instead, commissioners decided to see if the museums board would act on removing Thiesse from the post she's had for nearly four years.

From there, museums board members scheduled the Aug. 22 special meeting.

Fremont County Sheriff's deputies John Applegate and John Zerga, and Lander police officer Shawn McRae attended the meeting at the request of the museums board in the event of an incident.

Fremont County deputy attorney Jodi Darrough also was on hand.

The 10:30 a.m. meeting went immediately into closed-door executive session with Darrough, Thiesse and attending board members Butch Tonkin, Banks and Lane.

Board chairman Tom Duncan listened in on the meeting by telephone. Board member Eileen Urbigkit was absent.

In less than 10 minutes, the meeting was called back into public session.

Banks acted as chairman for Duncan and called for a motion for the "immediate termination" of Thiesse. Lane moved, followed by a second from Tonkin.

The three attending members voted in favor of the motion. Duncan abstained for undisclosed reasons.

Tonkin then moved to appoint Spriggs as temporary director until the board's next meeting. Lane seconded the motion. All four members were in favor of Spriggs serving as interim.

With no discussion from the board about their decisions, Thiesse asked if she could speak.

She said she and the museum's employees "who have actually done the work instead of sitting on the sidelines complaining" are proud of what they have accomplished in a short time under "very difficult circumstances."

"The commissioners have illegitimately pushed the museums board to take this action against me," Thiesse said. "The commissioners have caved to the baseless, unsubstantiated accusations against me by a few local loudmouths, some of whom have never been in the museum."

She continued by saying commissioners wrongfully interfered with her employment.

"Now, by taking this action of firing me without any basis or proof of wrongdoing, the museums board has also slandered and defamed me," she said.

The museums board's recent decision follows months of supporting Thiesse.

"As you know, the Museum(s) Board fully supports my client and it wants and expects her to remain the Executive Director of the Pioneer Museum," said Thiesse's attorney, Timothy C. Kingston, of Cheyenne, in a letter to commissioners earlier this summer.

In June, the commission asked Thiesse to resign amid ongoing complaints over her management of the county-owned museum and the county's numerous attempts to address the situation.

Among reasons cited by commissioners were Thiesse's poor relationships with supporters that appeared to be difficult to mend and how the situation was affecting volunteerism and creating animosity in the community.

At the time, commission vice chairman Pat Hickerson said to achieve its full potential, the museum needed alternate sources of funding and volunteer help, both of which require community support.

Thiesse said she would not resign.

"This matter must be put to rest," Kingston's letter stated. "Ms. Thiesse will remain as Executive Director and must be allowed to continue to do her job."

Next step

Banks said the museums board would have a work session to discuss finding a director and create an advertisement to commence a search.

In the meantime, he said the current Lander museum employees will do as much as possible to maintain the operation and keep the doors open.

"We as a board will be the support group to that," Banks said. "We have an administrative assistant who is very competent and can help with support."

Thompson said the commission would discuss the museums board situation at its Aug. 28 meeting.

"I believe the understanding was that if they would take care of the personnel situation that we wouldn't dismiss the whole board," Thompson said. "There is nothing in the works and no plans to say 'You two go, and you three stay.'"

"There may be some adjustments," he said about the museum.

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