York County Manager Jim Baker will offer a plan tonight that could dissolve the county's 21-member museum board and bring museum operations under the supervision of county officials, according to documents obtained by The Herald.
Baker on Sunday would not provide details about the plan or his reasons for drafting it, saying he wanted to first share his justifications with the York County Council and those who would be affected by the changes.
But the concept comes after the taxpayer-funded museum organization faced questions about its employees' salaries, stewardship of historic sites and artifacts, and the organization's work environment.
In a memo last week to the County Council, Baker stressed that he is not recommending any specific plan but rather asking county leaders to consider options. The possibilities will be discussed at a workshop at 5:30 p.m. today in council chambers.
One scenario described by Baker calls for the museum's 75 staff members, including director Van Shields, to become county employees, with day-to-day operations supervised by the county manager.
An advisory group with 10 or fewer members would guide the Culture & Heritage Museums and York County Forever, a land conservation effort.
Currently, Shields reports to the museum commission, whose members are appointed by the County Council.
County Council chairman Buddy Motz said the goal is to make the museum "more accountable to the taxpayers, so there's no misunderstanding of how money is being spent, how employees are being paid and whom they report to."
Motz, who is set to leave office in January after losing in the June Republican primary, said he wants the issue resolved before the end of his term.
"I just don't think it would be fair to leave a problem that was caused on my watch to the next County Council," he said.
Shields could not be reached for comment Sunday. Jim Johnston, chairman of the museum board, said he would need to see more specifics.
"I'm not opposed to change," Johnston said. "Some folks think that 21 members on the commission is too many, anyway. It probably is too large. I've got to see what they propose."
County Councilman Joe Cox said the problem "lies in the management of the museum itself, not just the board."
Cox said the museum's upper management positions should be eliminated and replaced with a department head who answers to the county manager's office. He said the board, if it remains intact, should be given better direction.
Cox criticized the museum management for what he called high salaries and for what he sees as its focus on building new facilities - such as the children's museum under construction in downtown Rock Hill - instead of taking care of existing buildings.
"We need more focus on what we have," especially in this "tanked" economy, said Cox, who said he has felt for several years that the museum has needed restructuring.
Although some have questioned Shields' salary and those of his deputy directors, Baker concluded earlier this year that museum salaries are not higher than or inconsistent with what is typical for similar positions.
Baker said Sunday that the county has been looking into ways to improve the management of all its cultural and recreational resources by bringing them under the same umbrella.
The museum organization oversees a main museum facility, the Museum of York County, on Mount Gallant Road as well as Historic Brattonsville and the McCelvey Center.
Questions have surfaced over plans for a museum of life and environment proposed for land overlooking the Catawba River in Fort Mill. While some preparations have been made for development, none has taken place, with the project on hold amid the recession.
The museum would be built on a portion of nearly 400 acres donated in 1998 by Jane Spratt McColl. Some funding for the museum was supposed to come from development of a large portion of the remaining property.
Now a private corporation created by the museum's foundation to develop the land is trying to sell some of it to pay a $3.78 million debt.
The debt was incurred when the corporation's development partner left the project after investing more than $4.5 million in it.
There has been informal talk about how the county might preserve the land, which would require buying some of it.
But foundation leaders say the county won't be asked to help pay the debt.
Meanwhile, a group of former staffers banded together in the spring to speak out against museum management, saying a hostile work environment discouraged them from sharing concerns about threats to historic sites and artifacts.
Shields and other directors have said they have always encouraged employees to speak up. They point to the museum's turnover rate, which they say is lower than that of similar nonprofit organizations. Plans call for a full archaeological survey at the new site, Shields has said.
As plans unfold for the new museum, Motz said it's important to have clear lines of authority, especially at a time when taxpayers are giving greater scrutiny to government spending.
"The public wants to make sure tax money is being applied properly," Motz said. "All the questions and issues that are out there. ... we're going to address head-on."