Top 10 stories of 2020

Oscar Gittemeier, the most recent former library director, welcomes a patron back to Teton County Library in August, when the library reopened its doors after being closed to in-person service earlier in the COVID-19 pandemic. Gittemeier left the library, and his departure, as well as a string of incidents that followed it, has people raising alarms about library management.

When former Director Dawn Jenkin left Teton County Library, she didn’t provide much explanation for her departure.

In the wake of a tumultuous few months in which Director Oscar Gittemeier left the post and volunteer Dail Barbour was removed from the library board, Jenkin has given a much lengthier account. She was motivated, she wrote in a report to the Teton County Board of County Commissioners, by overreach from Teton County administration and a desire to bring to light an effort when she was director to have her publicly toe the county line.

“I fear that I did not speak loudly or clearly enough about the lack of community transparency and profound disagreement over the legal and ethical boundaries of public library governance that forced my resignation,” she wrote to the commissioners.

Jenkin is one of many former and current staff members or residents who have spoken at public meetings decrying what they see as county intrusion into library affairs and a willingness of the library board to cede responsibility to the Teton County Human Resources Department. For their part, library board members say partnerships with county departments are a way to reduce costs and allow library staff to focus on patrons.

“We have a fiduciary responsibility to become as efficient as we possibly can, particularly in the environment of declining revenues and budgets, and so forth,” board Chair Mark Hendrickson told the News&Guide. “When we have an opportunity to utilize other county departments, we have an obligation to look at that.”

County human resources has long provided assistance to the library. Board Vice-Chair Grace Robertson said that as far as she could find, the HR department was created in 2005 and has helped the library since then.

In its role in Teton County, human resources is supposed to provide hiring support, ensuring interviews and practices comply with equal opportunity laws. Through a public records request, the News&Guide obtained emails that show such involvement and sometimes advice on other matters.

Wyoming statutes for libraries state that the library board hires the director, and the director hires the staff. The laws also say the board sets duties and salaries for staff, but they predate the concept of HR departments, so they don’t offer guidance on how closely the county should be involved. Some community members argue that the relationship is too close, as do many former staff members.

Recently a group of 16 former library employees and a former Library Foundation executive director, who each worked for the library anywhere from two to 27 years, took out a full-page advertisement in the News&Guide. The ad singled out county overreach and specifically called on commissioners to restore the library director’s authority over human resources, including staffing structure, writing job descriptions and making hiring decisions.

The documents obtained by the News&Guide show tension arising as recently departed Director Gittemeier attempted to assert independence from the county HR department. After Assistant Director Isabel Zumel left this past summer, he began the hiring process for a new assistant director on his own, but Human Resources Director Julianne Fries stepped in. She told him how her department was to participate in the hiring process.

“He apparently didn’t realized [sic] our department offers many of the tools that he’s been developing on his own (such as interview questions, rating forms, offer letters, candidate reference check questions, etc.),” Fries wrote in a Sept. 24 email to Hendrickson describing their conversation.

After some back-and-forth, the library board and Fries decided to allow Gittemeier to continue running the hiring process, as well as the one for the ITadministrator. Fries, however, told the library board she wasn’t happy about the situation.

“This is an important process, and I am concerned that this direction may inadvertently be setting a precedent that now allows Oscar to eliminate HR from this process,” she wrote to Hendrickson and Robertson.

Speaking to the News&Guide on Monday, the two board members agreed with Fries that having HR representatives help draft questions, review resumes and ensure fair hiring removes a burden from library staff. But others, including Betsy Bernfeld, a former library director who signed onto the full-page newspaper ad, say it deteriorates the institutional freedom state law gives libraries.

“I don’t know why the library board doesn’t understand that they have the responsibility to keep the separation,” she previously told the News&Guide. “They seem to be saying, ‘Maybe it’s easier. We have this HR person; she can help us make up all these personnel decisions.’”

Hendrickson and Robertson said county HR doesn’t choose who is hired. That even applies to the board itself, Robertson said, which hired Gittemeier this summer with county assistance. Fries’ department advised the board on questions, but the final say on interview specifics and the choice of Gittemeier was the board’s.

Emails obtained by the News&Guide also show Fries, who did not respond to a request for an interview, exerting influence in other ways. In one exchange she provided board member Peter Stalker with a link to the county’s COVID-19 metrics.

Fries is in charge of “administrative control” issues for the county, including employee illness, teleworking and other pandemic-specific HR needs, while Teton County Health Department staff were tasked with navigating “engineering control” issues like building access. In the email exchange she commented on Gittemeier’s desire to keep the library building closed to the public because some county metrics were in the highest-risk zone.

“Oscar plans on using ‘science’ to support his plan to not re-open,” Fries wrote, explaining that some county metrics were not as concerning as others. “Oscar believes the library is ‘open’ because he is providing curbside services and virtual access, however, ‘Open’ means allowing patrons to access the building.”

In another thread with Hendrickson, Fries gave advice on how the board should communicate with Gittemeier, who said he was receiving direction from three board members regarding Zumel’s replacement. Robertson and Hendrickson were meeting weekly with Gittemeier at the time, and Fries stated that she thought Barbour, the board member who was later removed, might be the third.

“This is something you may want to consider discussing with all Board members to make sure you are all operating on the same page, as you may have another individual keen on getting involved in operational decisions,” Fries wrote.

The hiring process for Zumel’s replacement reveals county involvement in other parts of the process besides interviewing. Gittemeier drafted an assistant director job description, but then he was required to fill out a position analysis questionnaire. Fries, Gittemeier and the library board workshopped the description, but the final one Fries sent was for an administrative services manager with a salary of roughly $40,000 less than Zumel was making and different responsibilities.

Robertson and Hendrickson said Fries’ downgrade of the position was the result of the organic process, but Gittemeier told the board in an email he wasn’t comfortable with it.

“I don’t know that this new position description captures all that the Assistant Director does or all that was included in the [position analysis questionnaire],” he wrote. “In addition, this description has several items that the Assistant Director was not responsible for.”

At its December meeting, the library board approved the downgraded job description after interim Director Deb Adams told the board that most similar-size libraries in Wyoming don’t have assistant directors.

Bernfeld’s group called such work “consistent over-involvement” and “overreach” in the newspaper ad. Library board members defended the current situation, explaining that the county helps them draft job descriptions and salaries that are in line with similar institutions around the country.

“That external equity and ability to understand and ensure we can follow that is important to make sure we are doing fair compensation and that we’re competitive,” Robertson said.

For Jenkin, the former director, a relationship with the county HR department isn’t inherently wrong. Libraries around the country work with their local governments on common services like payroll or hiring, she said, but there’s a line.

Typically, Jenkin said, an agreement for shared services spells out the relationship, “just so there’s clear expectations, boundaries and evaluations built in.”

County HR and the library do not have an agreement for shared services, the board members said, so there are currently no public guardrails for people to understand Fries’ department’s involvement. In light of the recent claims of county overreach and in the hope of lending transparency, the board plans to create such a document soon, perhaps even starting at one of its upcoming board meetings.

“Defining those processes … will include looking at responsibilities and clarifying those in case there has been overreach,” Robertson said.

Contact Tom Hallberg at 732-7079 or thallberg@jhnewsandguide.com.

Tom Hallberg covers a little bit of everything, from skiing to long-form feature stories. A Teton Valley, Idaho, transplant by way of Portland and Bend, Oregon, he spends his time outside work writing fiction, splitboarding and climbing.

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