Julianne Fries, the head of Teton County’s human resources department, is resigning.
But the human resources director who served amid public calls for the department’s review and low employee morale is slotted to stay on Teton County’s payroll as a consultant.
Per a Teton County Board of County Commissioners-approved contract, Fries will continue working on a retainer that will pay her $10,877 a month. That’s roughly $1,000 more than her most recent monthly pay reported in the county’s state-mandated list of full time employees and salaries, which is attached to the online version of this article along with the contract at JHNewsAndGuide.com. County Administrator Alyssa Watkins said the extra cash is the total of Fries’ monthly salary and single rate for COBRA, a federal insurance offered to employees who lose their employer-provided health insurance.
The Teton County Board of County Commissioners approved Fries’ retainer without discussion Tuesday, placing the contract on its consent agenda and approving it unanimously along with eight other items.
Fries told the News&Guide she was resigning because she’d “been presented with some opportunities that I just couldn’t turn down.
“So as a result,” she said in an email, “I am resigning after 10 amazing years serving this organization and its employees.”
Watkins, who will serve as the county’s interim director of human resources until a new person is hired to fill Fries’ position, said in an email the retainer was necessary because the county was considering outsourcing a contract for an interim director.
But Watkins said she’d be able to handle in-person interim tasks with Fries providing support remotely. Those are reasons similar to those outlined in a staff report attached to Tuesday’s agenda, which chalked the reason for the contract up to Fries’ willingness to continue to work in that capacity and her “familiarity with the County’s employees, systems, vendors, policies, practices, etc.”
“Ms. Fries is uniquely suited to provide this service,” the staff report that Watkins approved and Deputy County Attorney Keith Gingery reviewed said. “The human resources department serves all Teton County employees thus continuity of operations is vitally important. This contract is being requested as a sole source, again, because Ms. Fries is uniquely situated to provide support to the county during the interim period.”
Per the staff report and contract, Fries will continue to be involved with county employees.
She will consult on “disciplinary actions, performance evaluations, recruitment, policy and procedure administration, position classification and salary setting, and benefits administration.”
The longest she will continue working for the county is six months: an initial, contractually agreed upon three months, and then for one month increments for another three if she and the county agree.
Watkins announced Fries’ resignation in an email sent to Teton County staff shortly after 5 p.m. Thursday. The outgoing human resources director worked for the county for 11 years, Watkins said, and served in a variety of HR roles throughout the community prior.
Fries recently led the Teton County Board of County Commissioners and staff through an overhaul of the county employee manual. That year-long process afforded employees new leave options and merit-based salary increases for workers at the end of their salary range. Watkins said in her all-staff email that update also included a wellness program and voluntary health insurance programs for Teton County Search and Rescue and Jackson Hole Fire/EMS volunteers.
“I truly appreciate the time, dedication and expertise Julianne has provided to our organization over the past decade,” Watkins wrote in that email.
Fries also presided over county human resources during a period of low employee morale and public outcry over her department’s involvement with the library.
A November 2019 survey of employees revealed pervasive morale issues at Teton County.
The county received a 37 out of 100, dubbing its overall employee culture a “problem area.” It took over a year for the County Commission to address the results head on, though steps may now be taken to improve morale.
A slew of former Teton County Library employees also alleged in a public News&Guide advertisement that Fries’ department was “over-involved” in library affairs. Those officials asked that the county turn “statute-defined” authority over human resources back to the library and, while the library board has defended the county human resource department’s involvement in the library, it did request a clearer outline of its relationship with Fries’ office.
Six people who spoke at a December meeting about the as-yet-unexplained departure of former library director Oscar Gittemeier, who left after just three months on the job, also requested a review of Fries’ department. A review never happened publicly.
Fries did not respond before press time to a Tuesday afternoon request for comment about those issues.
Watkins, in an email to the News&Guide confirming that Fries was resigning, laid out 24 bullet points detailing the outgoing HR director’s “countless improvements and advancements” in county departments and offices.
Those included rolling out the new human resources manual, maintaining “county benefits at an average trend of 1% increase,” recommending in 2015 “a new compensation plan structure” and establishing in the same year “a county philosophy to place its salary range assignments at 5% above market of the prevailing rates paid for similar occupations.” Watkins also touted Fries’ reduction of worker’s compensation claims, development of a new “onboarding guide” and more.
But the county administrator also said Fries “recommended wage increases for dispatchers to allow more competitive recruitment and hiring of emergency dispatchers.”
That may not be accurate, another elected official said.
Teton County Sheriff Matt Carr, who oversees dispatchers and fought for years to get the County Commission to agree to a pay raise intended to better attract new hires, remembered things differently.
“That simply is not a true statement,” Carr said. “She fought us every turn of the corner on the dispatchers.”