Years of frustration linked to the Teton County Library bubbled to the surface Monday when the public unleashed complaints alleging mismanagement by the county’s human resources director, as well as the library board and County Commission.
The barrage of criticism came at the beginning of a joint meeting of the Jackson Town Council and Teton County Board of County Commissioners when elected officials allow public comments on items not on their agenda.
In October, most recent Teton County Library director Oscar Gittemeier departed — the reason why has not been made public — after serving just three months.
Several commenters questioned whether his departure was a result of his sexuality.
His departure, which some Monday referred to as a "firing," was the marquee moment in a fall of upheaval at the library. It accompanied the Teton County Board of County Commissioners' sudden audit of library finances, spurred in part by a suggestion to look into a county takeover of the library’s budget and, more recently, the board’s decision to remove Dail Barbour, a former commissioner and the only former library staff member on the library board, from her seat.
All three events, coupled with concerns about the library board, which has been implicated in Barbour’s ouster, had commenters up in arms.
Dawn Jenkin, who served as library director for a year before quitting in 2019, said that, as director, she looked into library law in all 50 states and learned that public libraries share the same legal foundation: They “are funded by local governments but are prohibited from being directly managed by them. This ensures a continuum of library service through changes in political regime and funding support.
“Public libraries are guided by these statutes expressly to prevent what is happening in Teton County,” she said, adding that she had hoped the library board would embrace those ideals.
“Instead, the library board has continued to allow the county to extend overreach beyond its expertise or rightful bounds,” Jenkins continued. “It is past time for the public to become vigilant in demanding that the library board serve its charge: the effective management of a free and independent library according to professional standards.”
She was not alone.
People who commented, many who said they were reading prepared statements from library employees who did not want to speak publicly, asked for an investigation of the relationship between Teton County’s human resources department, headed by Julianne Fries, and the library. Others asked for Barbour’s reinstatement. Others still wondered whether Gittemeier had been "fired," and treated badly because of his gender identity.
Fries did not respond to the News&Guide’s requests for comment. When reached Tuesday, Gittemeier declined to comment.
Library board Chair Mark Hendrickson said in an email that he had not been aware of Monday's joint information meeting and hadn't listened to the public comment.
"It would therefore be improper for me to render an opinion or provide a statement to something which I am unfamiliar with," he wrote, nonetheless expressing support for Fries and her department: "As it generally relates to county HR and specifically Julianne, we have experienced nothing but professional and prompt service and advice."
Mark Houser, who spoke and said he helped organize the flood of public comments, told the News&Guide that he had been mistaken about a piece of evidence underpinning the argument that gender identity-based discrimination had occurred. That was an email exchange between Gittemeier, who is openly transgender, and Deputy County Attorney Keith Gingery, where Gittemeier inquired about a countywide nondiscrimination ordinance to protect LGBTQ people.
Houser alleged that Gingery did not respond. But Gingery did, in fact, respond initially and sent emails to the News&Guide Tuesday to confirm. Houser sought to correct the record Tuesday.
“I wanted to correct my statements and take ownership of them,” he told the News&Guide. “I'm working from the position of creating more safety for the LGBTQ community within Jackson and Teton County. And so I want to do that in a forthright and positive frame.”
In the email thread, Gingery responded to Gittemeier's first email, telling him that a library-specific policy could be written up. Gittemeier then responded, nine days before he was out as library director, asking what steps he could take to advocate for a countywide policy. Gingery did not get back to the library director before he departed.
Another commenter made a separate claim, alleging that Fries did not follow up on a complaint of perceived discrimination towards LGBTQ folk.
All told, the News&Guide saw about 15 individuals make about 18 comments, with some people speaking for both themselves and someone else who couldn’t attend.
About five comments came from people who, like Gittemeier, identified as LGBTQ. Six called for a countywide non-discrimination ordinance and the same number called for a review of Fries’ department. Three called for Barbour’s reinstatement.
Allegations of overreach
Underlying a number of the complainants' concerns was the idea that Fries and her department have overstepped bounds when it comes to Teton County Library.
Meena Fernald spoke on behalf of a former library employee “who did not feel comfortable reading their statement out loud today.” That employee lamented how schedules at the library had become more rigid, “new, clunky software was installed that patrons and staff both hated,” and a “highly paid interim director was appointed, who also happened to be a former board member, despite having no library experience to speak of.”
Ari Goldstein fits that description. Goldstein was the board treasurer until April 30, when the board approved him to take over for interim director Sid Stanfill, who had stepped in after Jenkin left. Goldstein had four years of experience on the volunteer board, but no formal library training. With Goldstein abstaining, the board unanimously approved a temporary contract for him at $70 an hour for at least 20 hours per week, a rate that outstrips what full-time permanent directors make.
Though his position was part time, Goldstein’s hourly rate would have translated to a full-time yearly salary of $145,600. Gittemeier, who brought a master’s of library and information science and a decade of experience, was hired with a salary of $115,630.
“I could write at length about the series of negatively impactful decisions that were forced upon staff members, and the total obfuscation around who made these decisions and why. But suffice it to say that choices were frequently made by either the board, the county or both that impacted how staff could serve our patrons,” Fernald read. “This is a direct result of both county overreach and a group of board members who lack the experience and knowledge to successfully oversee a director, and thus a library.”
The employee asked that Barbour be reinstated, and for a review of county HR and administration “who I believe have consistently deteriorated the library's ability to function.
“Please do not allow people who are unfit to hold positions of power to continue sabotaging this vital community institution,” the employee continued.
Jordan Rich, a former library employee, relayed a similar experience. She said she worked there from 2016 to 2018 and, when she was hired, thought she’d landed a dream job because of the library itself, her coworkers, the work and the culture. But she, like many in Jackson Hole, was working a slate of other jobs. And her outlook on working there changed.
“County HR through then Library Director Valerie Maginnis changed the library’s policies so that staff’s schedules were rigid and you could not have any flexibility and have a second job,” Rich said, adding that she felt forced to choose between two jobs: her library position and another at the Community Safety Network. Rich chose the latter in part because she could live off the pay.
When she left, she said she was hoping that “things would improve” at the library.
“I am so disappointed to see that, in fact, they have gotten worse,” Rich said.
Her position, she said, had not been filled, adding that five other library employees had left over the summer. Their positions had not been filled either, she said. Mark Houser, who spoke earlier in the meeting, said that, since 2018, the library has 13 fewer staff.
“I attribute that to increasing encroachment of county HR and county policies,” Rich said.
Non-discrimination ordinance sought
Only three commenters specifically alleged discrimination because of sexual orientation or gender, and the evidence for two of those claims was later walked back.
But many people who spoke indicated that the firing of someone in the LGBTQ community without any information as to the cause created a chilling effect. Gittemeier left a job in Atlanta for the position at the Teton County Library, a move that’s not always easy for someone who identifies as LGBTQ, said Sara Burlingame, a Wyoming state representative and the executive director of Wyoming Equality, a nonprofit that advocates for LGBTQ Wyomingites.
“LGBTQ folks are almost always hyperaware of their vulnerability when we come into a new situation,” Burlingame said Monday. “And we're looking for processes that support us and we're looking for a community and a process that creates that resiliency and ability to trust.”
Commenters said that Gittemeier’s departure, which officials have neither confirmed as a firing nor released any details about, undermines that sense of communal trust and welcomeness.
According to the emails Gingery provided, Gittemeier had approached the county about expanding the town of Jackson nondiscrimination ordinance into a county-wide measure after a same-sex couple was harassed in Wapiti. Gingery did respond initially, but no further action appears to have been taken. Ten days later, Gittemeier was no longer the library director.
“Before we could get any further into this project, he was gone,” Gingery wrote.
The lack of information led Houser and another commenter, Adrian Croke, to connect the dots between the emails and Oscar’s departure.
Croke asked the electeds for detail about Gittemeier’s exit in part hoping to confirm that his departure did not have to do with his sexuality. She also requested the expansion of Jackson’s nondiscrimination ordinance to the county, a request five other commenters shared.
Jackson’s municipal code, adopted in 2018, specifically prohibits discrimination based on “sexual orientation or gender identity or expression” in housing, employment and “places of public accommodation,” which include hotels, restaurants and municipal buildings.
Teton County does prohibit discrimination, harassment or retaliation based on “sexual orientation,” and “sex, including gender or gender identity” in its employee manual.
It has not adopted a county-wide rule like Jackson’s. But Gingery said Tuesday doing something similar was possible. One avenue would be through internal county policy, which would apply only to county staff. Another would be for the County Commission make a non-binding statement through a resolution. The option closest to the town of Jackson’s in that it would have some legal teeth would be for the County Commission to create a new rule, which would affect the general public, through a separate resolution.
But what the county could and couldn’t regulate would be an open question.
“The town just has much more power than the county does to regulate,” Gingery said. “Can the county regulate landlord-tenant relationships? Probably not. So, we would have to take a look … and see, ‘Okay, what are our powers?’”
Andrew Munz, a writer, actor and former library employee, said he felt unsupported in his role at the library after choosing LGBTQ author Adam Silvera for a teen readers event. Munz said he was requested to select a heterosexual author to “even things out” for his next pick. He said he requested an exit interview with Fries and told her that he felt discriminated against, but his complaint resulted in "no changes and no action."
He said his position at the time, teen program coordinator, has never been filled and instead had its responsibilities tacked on to other positions.
“In support of Mr. Gittemeier, I share this story to ask our commissioners to adopt a non-discrimination ordinance to cover all of Teton County,” he said.
That move would be a step toward equity, commenters said, which Burlingame told commissioners was an important part of making the LGBTQ community feel welcome.
“We need to see more lesbian, gay, bisexual, Two Spirit, transgender, asexual, intersex folks in positions of leadership,” she said, “and I hope that the commission will take that seriously.”
Houser agreed: “I believe that a resolution being passed to include sexual orientation and gender identity sends a positive message to the LGBTQ community that you know their presence in Teton County is valued and people are willing to protect their rights.”
This article has been updated to provide more detail about the email exchange between Gittemeier and Gingery. Those emails are now attached to the online version of this article. — Eds.