When Oscar Gittemeier took the helm of the Teton County Library, a sense of excitement permeated his hiring. Hailing from the Fulton County Library system in Atlanta, he brought a penchant for innovative programming and rave reviews from Georgia colleagues.
The library had seen a spate of directors come and go in recent years. Staff morale was low; turnover high. In interviews he impressed staff and board members alike.
“Oscar’s positive, optimistic energy, creativity and broad experience regarding innovation distinguished himself from the other candidates,” board Chairman Mark Hendrickson wrote in an email to the Jackson Hole News&Guide when Gittemeier started in mid-July.
Three months later, he is gone.
Hendrickson and the library board will not say whether he was fired or quit, but he abruptly left the post Thursday, creating a leadership vacuum intensified because the library has been without an assistant director since Isabel Zumel left in early August.
Gittemeier could not be reached.
The News&Guide interviewed six current and former staff members who say Gittemeier’s departure is yet another example of a “toxic work environment” that devalues frontline library workers and pushes out those in leadership roles. Those interviewed described an imbalance of power between the library board and county administration that renders library directors and the board unable to conduct their duties as outlined by state statute.
Turnover at the top
The most high-profile example of library turnover is at the top. Longtime director Deb Adams left in 2015, and her replacement, Valerie Maginnis, lasted roughly three years, to 2018.
Sid Stanfill, former director of the Sublette County Public Library, stepped in as a stopgap after Maginnis, then Dawn Jenkin was hired in January 2019 in a contentious process. Just two finalists were chosen during that round of hiring, and Alexandria Eccles, the other, had been fired from the Lewiston City Library just months earlier.
Staff said they appreciated Jenkin’s work to shore up the library’s information technology operations, but she lasted less than a year, submitting her resignation in November 2019. The library board, chaired by John Hebberger Jr. at the time, asked her to leave just four days after she resigned, rather than keeping her until January 2020 when she had offered to officially depart.
Stanfill pitched in again, but he left in April. Board Treasurer Ari Goldstein, who had no formal degree or experience in library administration, was approved to take over from Stanfill. The board, with Goldstein abstaining, unanimously approved a temporary contract that paid him roughly $70 an hour.
He held that post until Gittemeier was hired, and now the library is gearing up for yet another transition at the top.
County officials involved
Current and former staff said the constant churn comes, in part, from undue influence from county officials, a trend they see as continuing through recent pressure from the Teton County Board of County Commissioners over the library’s pandemic response. Commissioner Mark Barron has taken umbrage with the library building not being open to the public, but staff said offerings like curbside delivery, digital events and candidate forums, among others, are evidence the library is meeting community needs while accounting for health risks.
County officials have also spoken with Hendrickson and board Treasurer Peter Stalker about absorbing some aspects of the library’s operations, like payroll. Already, the county’s human resources department, headed by Julianne Fries, takes a role in hiring library staff. Additionally, a move a few years ago to merge some of the library’s IT department with the county’s both violated the spirit of the statutes governing libraries in Wyoming and diminished the patron experience, staff told the News&Guide.
In an email sent Tuesday, Fries described her department not as the arbiter of who is hired at the library but as a partner with the library board.
“The library can seek assistance and guidance from HR just as they may seek use of other county support services as a cost-effective and collaborative system, whether it be through IT services, ground maintenance and snow removal, or other administrative support services as needs determined,” she wrote. “This is not an unusual practice in Wyoming as other county libraries do use county resources to support their operational needs.”
State law lays out the basic framework of library governance. County commissioners appoint a library board, which hires the director and oversees the budget, and the director runs the personnel and day-to-day operations.
“The board of directors shall appoint a competent librarian who with the approval of the board of directors shall appoint a library staff,” state law says. “The duties and compensation of the staff shall be determined by the board.”
At the same time, county commissioners set the taxes to be collected to run the library, which “shall be set apart as the county library fund.” The board then has the independence to spend the money in partnership with the library director as it sees fit. The appointment or dismissal of board members and setting of the property tax are the only duties laid out for the county government in regard to the library.
Now a lawyer, Betsy Bernfeld served as director of the Teton County Library before the current spate of turnovers. She said by giving the county some of its responsibilities, the library board seems to have lost sight of its independence.
“I don’t know why the library board doesn’t understand that they have the responsibility to keep the separation,” she said. “They’re not looking at the ramifications of those decisions. I think they’re missing out on their, you know, responsibility. They need to read the statutes.”
State made libraries independent
Written in the late 1800s, the state statutes likely didn’t anticipate a library system that included digital offerings, candidate forums, physical books and a plethora of other services. The laws do, however, clearly give the board the independent power to govern the library.
“The control, use and disposition of the county library fund is entrusted to the county library board of directors, which shall budget and expend the fund for the maintenance, operation and promotion of the county library and county library system in order to carry out the informational, educational, cultural and recreational role of the county library,” state law reads.
Nowhere does the law mention the county overseeing library operations, though nowhere does it preclude it. The gray area created is where the library and county are currently operating, but Bernfeld sees that as a violation of the way libraries are designed.
“There should be a separation there between the library and the county, and that is the responsibility of a library board,” she said. “The library system is set up that way so that there is a separation, so that the public, the private citizens, control the library more than the political county government.”
That separation will be the crux of legal questions Teton County Deputy Attorney Keith Gingery is exploring on whether the county can take over some aspects of the library’s budget. County Commissioner Mark Newcomb, the liaison to the library, wasn’t sure when that work would be complete.
Hendrickson declined to answer questions from the News&Guide on why the board was ceding library operations to the county, though Hendrickson and board Treasurer Peter Stalker have indicated they think financial efficiencies can be gained through consolidation, which Fries also alluded to in her email.
But, just three months after Gittemeier took the helm, the library doesn’t have a director to help navigate those questions.