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York County must OK museum changes

The Culture and Heritage Commission, which oversees York County's museums, must seek approval from county leaders for a narrowly approved plan to eliminate existing museum director positions and replace them with a series of managers.

Opponents of the plan claim the commission moved too quickly on restructuring museum leadership and, as a result, may harm the organization. But supporters said an alternative plan didn't go far enough to cut unnecessary positions and costs in time to meet the county's deadline.

The plan is part of a museum overhaul set in motion this year.

In June, the York County Council appointed the commission's seven new volunteers and asked them to take a hard look at the museums' finances and management. They replaced a 21-member board which county and some museum leaders said failed to provide adequate oversight of museum operations.

County leaders also decided to have county staff handle the finance and human resources duties for the museums, eliminating some museum positions.

Museum leaders have until tonight to present to the County Council a new staffing plan and financial outlook. The county's continued support, which accounts for three-quarters of the museums' budget, depends on it.

Completing the task in such a short period of time has been difficult for the new museum leaders, they have said.

Some commissioners said they didn't get a chance to see or consider the staffing plan before the night they approved it in a 4-3 vote.

"I can't tell you even the first thing about how it will function or who will fill the spots or any impact on existing programs," Commissioner Rick Lee said.

Jonell Hagner, who drew up the plan, wasn't able to distribute it to the full commission prior to Monday's meeting, but members of the committee tasked with creating the plan had discussed aspects of it before.

Hagner, Chairman David Plexico, Dennis Getter and Ragin Craig voted for it. Jerry West, Hester Benitez and Lee voted against it.

West had urged the commission to move quickly with museum reforms, but recanted before Monday's vote. He had a "change of heart" after meeting with employees and wanted to take the transition more slowly, he said.

"I looked at the faces of the museum people and I saw hurt and confusion," he said. "I began to see that we had failed them on some point, that we should be there calming the nerves, making them feel better, and giving them some kind of assurance."

West said he hopes the transition runs "smooth as silk and that everybody folds right into line and that we'll hardly notice the change, but I don't think we're going to see that. I'm worried that it's going to be rough for a long time, and we're going to lose or at least damage one of the best things this county has," he said.

Benitez said she was "upset" about the vote. She brought an alternative chart for consideration. It was one museum staff prepared at her request.

"I asked them to cut wherever they could cut, take out whatever they could take out," she said. At this point, she doesn't feel confident she fully understands what each staff member does well enough to make major changes.

She's also frustrated at the sense that the commission was rushing to meet more than a deadline from county council.

"It was a rush, rush, rush kind of thing," Benitez said. "They (commissioners) keep saying this is what the county council wants, but the county council hasn't told me that."

Finding a plan

Benitez's plan "didn't really save anything," Plexico said. "It didn't really accomplish what the (York County Council) is looking for in terms of streamlining the organization."

"We weren't ever really given a real figure of what to do, but we saw that there was some redundancy" in the management positions, Plexico said.

The positions were created in anticipation of a new museum on the river which never materialized, supporters of the cuts said last week.

Until recently, some employees have spent time every week working for the foundation that supports the museums, and the foundation reimburses the commission for the work done.

County leaders and the commission have ended that arrangement. Getter said the commission was like an "employment bureau," farming out employees to the foundation.

Eliminating those positions seemed the right thing to do, given the state of the economy and the need to save taxpayers' money, Plexico said.

The employees "have done a good job. But we've been told to cut duplicated services and wasteful spending," he said.

"We're basically turning the clock back" several years, Hagner said, explaining her thinking behind the new structure. The plan creates several managers including two site managers, one for the museums in Rock Hill and one for the sites in western York County.

Having those site managers will "let the people at those sites answer more to those site managers," something that is needed, Hagner said.

Cuts not mandated

Lee said that when county leaders revised how the museums operate, they did not include directors in the list of positions that had to be eliminated.

"We were only remove the duplicated services," including human resources and finance, responsibilities county staff will take over.

"All of this other goes well beyond anything that's in writing," he said, referring to the approved plan.

Lee urged commissioners to postpone changing the personnel structure so soon. Waiting would give them time to learn more about the organization, he said.

Plexico disagreed, arguing that extending the changes would only prolong the uncertainty employees are feeling.

Lee worries that the museums will lose talented employees.

"I think they're the ones who are being the most easily discarded," he said. "Anyone can buy a building, but it takes real people to have a museum."