More details have emerged explaining what motivated county commissioners to remove Dail Barbour from the Teton County Library Board. But Barbour said the explanation is based on hearsay, not evidence.
Two commissioners have provided some information about Barbour’s removal, which came during a closed executive session on Nov. 9. And, in an email obtained by the News&Guide, Commissioner Greg Epstein told a constituent that “a majority of the current library board asked us to have Dail step down because she was creating a toxic environment that was disallowing the board from succeeding in its mission.
“This went beyond disagreements regarding perspectives on library issues to personal attacks from Dail toward others on the board,” he wrote. “Regardless of who you support this is not ok on any board or in any work environment. Ultimately, we felt that this was a necessary step to help get the current board and library back on track.”
Epstein’s email, which was sent from a private email, was not included in the Teton County Board of County Commissioner’s correspondence report, a biweekly amalgamation of public comment attached to the agenda ahead of a regular meeting.
Barbour told the News&Guide that the reasons Epstein cited for her removal were based on false information.
“What he says in the email about what was going on in the meetings is not true. And it is on the recorded record,” Barbour said. “I don’t think anybody has ever looked at it. So, it’s hard for me to understand that people can just say these kinds of things that are not true and take these actions that are unwarranted without examining the record.”
Epstein did not elaborate Tuesday on that email or the information commissioners had reviewed when making their decision.
But his letter builds on statements from Commissioners Luther Propst and Mark Newcomb, adding weight to a case that the other Library Board members were involved in Barbour’s removal.
Library board Chair Mark Hendrickson — the board member designated to speak with the press — has not responded to requests for comment.
Propst was the sole vote on the County Commission against Barbour’s removal. He told the News&Guide that he didn’t see grounds for removing her based on the criteria Wyoming law gives for doing so: “misconduct or neglect of duty.”
Propst didn’t elaborate on his reasoning, saying only that “when the commissioners appoint a library board, we expect some robust debate on the library board and on all other boards.”
Newcomb also told the News&Guide that he thought Barbour’s “voice” was valuable.
“But our information was that the manner in which she was operating was creating very difficult challenges for the board,” the commissioner said, suggesting that several Library Board members might have resigned if Barbour remained. “Our information was that there had been a meeting with her and the board chair and our Human Resources Director, and that it didn’t go well at all from their perspective.”
Not on the record
The absence of Epstein’s email from the correspondence report was notable since the constituent he emailed responded by copying a general email for the County Commission. That’s how many emails end up included in the bi-weekly correspondence report.
Cheyenne attorney Bruce Moats specializes in protecting public access to government and has represented the News&Guide in cases regarding open meetings and public records. He said there are no regulations specifically about correspondence reports, but he thinks it’s “good practice” for the County Commission to have a regular report, which has faded away in other parts of the state.
“People who are trying to influence government — the public should know that,” Moats said.
But the attorney was concerned that Epstein’s email had been left out: “Nothing legally says they’ve got to do the summary. But, gosh, it ought to be accurate.”
Epstein said he had been informed of the ability to remove the email by county staff.
“They just said this is an email based on an executive session conversation, so we can have it removed from the public record,” Epstein told the News&Guide. “I said, ‘Okay, that’s fine.’ ”
But, by that point, Epstein said he had realized that he shouldn’t have sent the email.
That’s because executive sessions are widely considered confidential. Epstein said commissioners are told as much after they’re elected and advised to keep conversations about the executive session to “within the people in the room.”
In an email chain included in the public correspondence, former library board Chair John Hebberger Jr. criticized Propst for speaking to the press. Reporters, Moats said, are free to ask questions about executive sessions.
After Propst responded, laying out why he felt comfortable telling the newspaper what he did, Hebberger gave the commissioner his opinion.
“My own experience with executive sessions leaves me of the opinion that it is most appropriate to offer no information, no opinions regarding what transpired in one,” Hebberger wrote.
(Read their full exchange in the public comment about the Library Board attached to this article online at JHNewsAndGuide.com.)
But Moats said confidentiality in executive sessions has not been litigated, and whether governing board members are prohibited from talking about them is a “real open question.”
“There’s a question about whether restricting a board member would then violate their first amendment rights,” he said. “If they are exclusively prohibited from doing so, then someone couldn’t explain their rationale. That’s really contrary to good governance and transparency.”
Similarly, Propst responded to Hebberger by writing: “My perspective is that I am both authorized by statute and mandated by principle to explain the rationale for my recorded and public votes, but I am correctly precluded from describing deliberations in executive session.”
Moats acknowledged that there are a spectrum of opinions on the topic, and that he was on one side. Others, he said, could have a different opinion more in line with Hebberger’s.
County Attorney Erin Weisman and Deputy County Attorney Keith Gingery declined to comment, citing attorney-client privilege.
Commenters back Barbour
Elsewhere in public comment, people backed Barbour.
“I have known Dail for many years as an outstanding human, wonderful leader, lover of the community and moreover a dedicated volunteer at many non-profits locally,” Molly Murray wrote. “I don’t know the details of her dismissal but would go so far as to suggest it was shocking.”
That echoed others’ comments. Some lamented the lack of transparency and asked for Barbour to be reinstated.
One commenter wondered why library “access” was limited. The library’s decision to remain physically closed earlier in the pandemic prompted commissioners to request an audit of the library’s budget.
Along with the unexplained departure of Library Director Oscar Gittemeier, that’s contributed to a season of upheaval and feelings of discontent among library staff.
Barbour was the only board member with in-library experience. She is also a former county commissioner, who served from 1991 to 1994.
Now, she’s weighing options for responding to her removal. Legal action is on the table.
The vacancy for Barbour’s former board position was not advertised by mistake, Commission Chair Natalia D. Macker said at the end of Tuesday’s regular meeting. That means it will be filled through a process and at a date uncertain.