The Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture board is accusing its popular former director of “poor performance” and is standing behind his controversial termination.
In a letter sent this week to former director Forrest Rodgers, the board offered to provide essentially two months of severance pay and provide a letter of recommendation to assist in his search for a new job. But despite community outrage over Rodgers’ dismissal, the board gave no indication it wanted him back on the job.
A copy of the letter, sent by the board in response to Rodgers’ threat to sue if he wasn’t reinstated, was obtained Friday by The Spokesman-Review.
The letter for the first time outlines reasons for Rodgers’ termination, though the board also argues that Rodgers is a probationary employee and that no reasons are needed. In it, the board’s attorney, Maureen McGuire, an assistant attorney general, argues that the decision was based on “poor performance” especially related to Rodgers’ “failure” to implement plans to solve the MAC’s financial problems and for his decision to spend “a significant amount” of funds that were not approved by the board. The MAC is a state institution that has suffered in recent years as a result of state spending cuts.
Rodgers was fired by a committee of the MAC board in April in a decision that has angered many museum donors, members and volunteers. Rodgers’ supporters say he has brought innovative leadership to a museum that has been led for several years by directors who have no museum experience, and they question how the board could expect Rodgers to have fixed the MAC’s significant financial problems after only eight months on the job.
The MAC board’s new president, Bruce Howard, said Friday that he’s disappointed that the letter became public and said it was meant to respond to a letter from Rodgers’ attorney last month that argued that his firing was illegal and threatened a lawsuit if the termination was upheld.
“This is a response to a specific letter,” Howard said. “It’s an invitation to further discussions.”
On Wednesday, Howard, who voted to terminate Rodgers, announced that he would appoint a three-person task force to deal with the controversy. He said Friday that he still hopes to do that, though he hasn’t yet selected the committee.
A new slate of board officers was elected at Wednesday’s meeting, and seven members leave the board at the end of the month, mostly as a result of their terms expiring.
The board is not fully united against Rodgers. Trustee Jim Sullivan, who opposed Rodgers’ termination, said late Friday afternoon that he remains supportive of Rodgers’ leadership.
“The only people that have referred to his poor performance relates to the executive committee,” Sullivan said. “Nobody else on the board was ever aware of poor performance.”
Bob Dunn, one of Rodgers’ attorneys, dismissed the reasons given for Rodgers’ termination as “after-the-fact, cover-your-butt rhetoric.” Despite a claim in the letter that there was a “series of meetings” with Rodgers to discuss his performance, Dunn said, Rodgers had no warning that his job was in jeopardy until the meeting in which he was fired.
Earlier this week, Rodgers said that two contracts raised as concerns during the open portion of Wednesday’s MAC board meeting were never cited to him as reasons for his termination. They totaled about $50,000, and he said they were under the amount that needed board approval according to rules in place at the museum and in his previous jobs. The contracts were covered with the MAC’s private funds.
Sullivan said the board was aware that the museum would contract for the work long before Rodgers was fired.
“It wasn’t a secret,” he said. “It was never controversial.”
Further, Sullivan said the contracts, which included a study about what museum visitors felt about their experiences, were needed to boost the museum’s finances. Rodgers, he said, was committed to generating interest in the MAC.
“What was occurring was people weren’t going to the MAC,” he said. “What the MAC needs to do is turn the turnstiles.”