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County considering creating one director for all its museums

May 29, 2013 - By Christina George, Staff Writer

Each Fremont County museum has its own director now, but the county's museums board is considering a new structure that would create a single county museums supervisor to oversee all three facilities.

Museums board members attended a Fremont County Commission meeting to present the proposed museums for the coming fiscal year.

Commissioner Stephanie Kessler serves as liaison to the board. She said the budget process was an ideal time to think about some changes.

"I know that there's been some talk at the board about taking the time to think about a new administrative configuration, and I wonder if we could take some time to hear from the board about that," Kessler said.

Museums board member Carol Chidsey presented her ideas to commissioners, outlining the job description of the county museums system executive director and highlighting the benefits change might bring.

According to a draft proposal, the director would provide leadership and administrative direction for the overall activities and operations of the county system and administer the budget, staff physical facilities, and collections, among other responsibilities.

The director would recruit, train and supervise the three site directors of the Dubois, Lander and Riverton museums and other system staff.

Reasoning

Chidsey said the current situation at the Riverton and Lander museums provides a good reason to restructure management.

The Fremont County Pioneer Museum in Lander hasn't had a director since the museums board fired Carol Thiesse in August following months of controversy

surrounding how she managed the facility.

Museum curator Connie Shannon took over the director duties after Thiesse's termination. A search launched last year and reopened in March after board members did not choose any of the three finalists for the position.

At a May 9 meeting, chairman Tom Duncan said the museums board intends to review applications on-hand for the Lander facility.

"In the budget, we've allowed for a new director at Lander to be on board as early as June," Duncan said. "It's not likely, but it's a possibility."

The Riverton museum also will be without a director soon due to Loren Jost's retirement in the fall.

Chidsey proposed such staffing changes in previous board meetings and work sessions, and Duncan directed her in a memo this month to provide details about her suggestions.

Duncan said that although the museums board may not consider staffing changes before the end of the current fiscal year, the proposal should be ready for review by the June 13 pre-meeting work session.

In a letter to commissioners, Chidsey said in her seven months on the board, she has seen how it functions and has become concerned about its role in the community.

Benefits

After researching other facilities in Wyoming, Chidsey said she thinks Fremont County would benefit from a fundamental change, and having a countywide museum director who works with all community museums would be valuable.

Although preliminary figures suggest it would cost $1,000 more annually to have one countywide director, Chidsey said savings could be found in administrative details and materials.

Having staff report to one individual rather than several and having a qualified director trained in museum science, fiscal and personal management and public relations are other positives with reconfiguration, Chidsey said.

She also cited how the board oversees a $750,000 budget and a staff of eight to 10 people.

"No other commission-appointed board is responsible for that much public funding or staff supervision without a professional countywide manager," she wrote in her proposal.

Chidsey said Fremont County could capitalize on its rich history by bringing the museums under one director, calling it a drawing card for tourism and an economic benefit for the area.

"Now is the perfect time to give this a try. We will not be hurting any of the staff, as we currently do not have a Lander director and are soon to lose the Riverton director," Chidsey said in her proposal. "If it doesn't work, we can revert to the current system."

Maintaining autonomy

Board member Steve Banks said part of the discussion has been to maintain the autonomy of all three museums.

"Each area museum has a different perspective of what they're preserving and what they're educating the public about," Banks said, adding that Chidsey has mentioned preserving independence of each facility.

At a meeting earlier this month, commission chairman Doug Thompson, who was the former liaison to the museums board, said the county board in past years has recommended having one director.

"Riverton and Lander were fairly parochial in, 'We want ours, and we want to run ours,'" Thompson said. "Kind of like we have with some elected officials, '(It's) our realm and don't bother me.'"

At Tuesday's meeting, Thompson said he'd prefer the museums board look at the proposal before running it by the commission.

"That way we're not usurping," Thompson said.

He said he could see the upsides and downsides to restructuring.

"But it's important that you as a board look it over," Thompson said. "If we said do this, we'd be bypassing your expertise, that's why you're appointed."

-- Staff writer Eric Blom contributed to this report.