The commission overseeing the county museums will ask York County for a chance to reinvent itself - and to dampen county leaders' cries for more accountability, stronger leadership and lower personnel costs.
The previous York County Council set into motion a plan to bring the Culture and Heritage Museums staff under county control - collapsing the Culture and Heritage Commission, which oversees the museum's budget and staff, into a new board that would govern the museums and the county's tourism and conservation arms.
The merger is a "bad idea" as museum leaders see it, but one that seems a viable option to county leaders - unless they can find a sound alternative.
Leading to the changes are county leaders' concerns over a lack of transparency, high salaries among upper management, an unwieldy governing body, and criticism over how leaders of the museums and the foundation that supports it handled a plan to develop land along the Catawba River for a new museum.
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Sensing swift changes to come, commission chairman Jim Johnston presented a "compromise" at the commission's Tuesday night meeting.
That included reducing expenses and changing the size and makeup of the museum board without offering to move under the county manager's control.
The commission agreed to make the following changes:
Reduce the size of the 21-member commission to nine members
Create a permanent seat on the commission for a representative from the county manager's office
Allow the commission to invite some ex-officio members with needed expertise and for some current commissioners to remain to ease the transition
Require background checks for all commissioners
Keep museum staff and budgets completely separate from the foundation that supports the museum to create more transparency about how these entities are related.
If the county opts not to bring the commission under county control, the commission would promise to reduce costs by:
Reviewing current salaries and organizational structures to reduce personnel costs through methods approved by the new commission
Working with other county agencies and departments to combine efforts in, for example, human resources and information technology.
Input from the county
Picking up where the old County Council left off, the new council - with five of seven members newly elected in November - asked museum leaders to work with them to find a way to address their concerns.
A big question, council members said, is whether to continue to allow the commission to govern the museums without direct county oversight.
At a Jan. 18 meeting, Councilman Eric Winstead said the County Council could reform the commission by changing how many county dollars it receives.
"If you control the purse strings," he said, "then you control the commission."
Councilman Chad Williams agreed, but equated cutting the budget to using a "hammer" to address their concerns.
"Sometimes a hammer isn't the best tool to use," he said.
"I'm begging council to put the tax dollar back in the hands of the people who put you in this seat," said Councilman Curwood Chappell, an outspoken critic of museum leadership. He also has been critical of the museum's relationship to the foundation and a for-profit corporation it set up to build a proposed new museum.
After a major development partner left the deal, the foundation was left with a $3.8 million debt. To pay the debt, the foundation is trying to sell a portion of the 400-acre property where 18th-century Catawba Indian villages and burials grounds have been discovered.
Museum leaders will deliver the proposal to the County Council when it meets Feb. 7, Johnston said.