The commission overseeing York County's museums, their employees and $2.9 million in public taxes might keep all of those responsibilities after all.
After months of discussion, the County Council voted 4-3 on Feb. 21 to transfer authority over the museums' finances and employees to county administrators. But two council members who favored the transfer said they might change their minds Monday night.
Chairman Britt Blackwell and Bruce Henderson said they are reconsidering their votes because other changes might accomplish the goal of making the commission more accountable. Blackwell also said current commissioners have promised to improve their operations.
Two weeks ago, the County Council considered two ways to restructure the Culture and Heritage Museums' governing body, the Culture and Heritage Commission. The commission has been criticized by some council members and some of its own members for poor oversight of museum affairs.
Both options called for reducing the commission's size from 21 to nine members and combining some museum functions, including human resources and information technology, into county departments.
But the plans differed on whether museum directors and staff should remain employees of the commission or be moved under county control.
The council voted 4-3 in favor of creating a new county department led by the museum's executive director, who would answer directly to the county manager.
That plan would give county leaders more control over spending and personnel matters - oversight the museum needs, according to Blackwell, Henderson and Councilmen Curwood Chappell and Eric Winstead.
But at Blackwell's request, the County Council will reconsider its initial decision on Monday night.
Change of heart
Blackwell said a "flood" of phone calls and e-mails from former and current employees initially convinced him that direct county oversight was the only way to go.
"The more I heard, the more I realized there are some issues at the museum that need to be corrected," he said.
Blackwell has called the commission a "rah-rah society" for providing what he sees as little oversight of museum business.
Blackwell said he wanted county manager Jim Baker to "find out if there has been mismanagement" and if the museum is truly "top heavy."
But the "reality" of creating a new county department - along with pledges from museum commissioners to cooperate on building a better commission - led Blackwell to change his mind, he said.
Not a fan of expanding county government, Blackwell said he'll rethink giving the commission "one final shot" at governing the museums to see "what happens until it has to be total government control," Blackwell said.
Van Shields, executive director of the Culture and Heritage Museums, declined to comment last week.
Calls for reform
Discussions about dissolving the Culture and Heritage Commission and transferring museum employees into the county started last year after complaints about museum management from former and current council members, museum employees and commissioners.
The museum has too many directors, and their salaries are too high, some county leaders and museum commissioners have claimed. But a report Baker provided council members last year said museum salaries are in line with similar organizations.
Also, a deal to develop a portion of 400 acres along the Catawba River has had some council members asking for more transparency. The land was donated in 1998 by Jane Spratt McColl for a new county museum. A mixed-use development was supposed to raise money for the museum, but the deal soured because of the economy, museum leaders have said.
Now, the museum's foundation is trying to sell a portion of the land to pay back $3.78 million it owes a development partner who left the deal.
Questions over employee satisfaction prompted a third-party survey. The findings showed employees are generally satisfied with their jobs - with pay, communication and the organization's focus being areas in need of improvement.
'Will be very transparent'
Creating a new county department might not be needed to achieve more county oversight of museum affairs, council members Chad Williams, David Bowman and Bump Roddey have said.
Now, Blackwell and Henderson agree.
"We have to be accountable to the taxpayer, but we're going to put a lot of faith in the new commission," Blackwell said. "Certainly, the new commission will look into my concern of (the museum) being 'top heavy.'"
The council can give itself the power to review and make suggestions about museum budget line items, a power it currently does not have, Baker said.
Henderson, who also said he's for less government, said more direct communication between council members and the commissioners will help create more transparency and oversight.
The County Council has proven "we really mean business" in giving first approval to moving museum employees into the county, he said.
No matter what the council decides to do, "This money will be accounted for. It will be very transparent," he said.
Councilman Eric Winstead said he'd support the new option as long as the council had "line item control" instead of giving the commission "a blank check."
He said he'd hoped the process would move forward more quickly for the sake of employees who are waiting to see what happens.
The council already "made a decision. Now, let's go from there. Don't go back to ground zero again," he said.
"Not to degrade the importance of Culture and Heritage, but we do have some more important issues facing the county."
Whatever the council decides, nothing is absolute. Each option requires a public hearing and two more approvals before becoming law.