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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

MAC board, former director view reasons for firing differently

Forrest Rodgers, former director of the Northwest Museum of Arts and Cultures, stands near the falls in downtown Spokane, Thursday, Feb. 18, 2016. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

The beginning of the end of Forrest Rodgers’ second short tenure at the helm of the Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture came last summer.

Rodgers and some members of the museum’s board believed other board members were micromanaging the director and his staff.

Some board members describe a tumultuous period of in-fighting.

“There was just too much animosity to get things done,” said Peter Moye, who served as the board chairman and resigned from the board last summer.

By midsummer, most of Rodgers’ remaining supporters resigned or opted against serving new terms, leaving Rodgers with little support. After that, the board began extensive reviews of Rodgers’ work that were provided to him in memos. In December, he was ordered to attend management training.

Rodgers, who was first hired at the MAC in 2011, was fired last month.

The current board has not said what led it to fire him.

“I know it’s hard, but I’m sure you can appreciate that it is a personnel issue and we can’t comment further,” said Toni Pessemier, the MAC board chairwoman. “It was a difficult decision that the board considered thoughtfully with a careful process that led to the decision.”

Rodgers’ termination last month was the second time he got the ax from the museum board. The first time, in 2012, the board fired him illegally when it violated open meetings law. He also had vocal support from museum supporters that helped propel him back into the job after only a few months.

After his second firing, Rodgers asked the attorney who helped him get his job back to examine if the firing was done legally.

“It appeared that they jumped through all the hoops they had to,” attorney Bob Dunn said.

This time, Rodgers is not working to get his job back.

“I’ve decided at this point not to pursue legal action. I don’t think it does the museum community any good,” Rodgers said.

Based on the legal memos Rodgers received in the months leading to his termination, his firing was not a surprise.

One November memo, provided by Rodgers, expressed concerns about a postcard invitation for an event celebrating the Lego exhibit. The memo said it was sent too late and questioned some design elements on it.

The memos said Rodgers ignored directions to update the board about a study on increasing nonstate revenue for the museum. Board members were upset that he did not arrange for two guests of a board member at an art fundraiser. They said his initial draft of the “Museum Work Plan” didn’t meet the board’s expectations and that he missed a deadline to update it.

“You have failed to perform your duties consistent with the set expectations and your disregard of the Board’s instruction demonstrates insubordinate behavior,” said a memo from the board dated Jan. 12. “Moving forward, understand that you are expected to comply with Board direction, including those phrased in terms of ‘requests.’ Failure to do so constitutes a failure to meet the performance expectations for the Executive Director position and further constitutes insubordination.”

Board members say they have a responsibility to make sure the museum is being led properly.

“The people of the state of Washington and our donors and our stakeholders have trusted us to oversee the work of the museum,” said MAC board member Victoria Butler. “I believe that every single person on the board takes that job seriously.”

But Rodgers said the memos were extreme and made it difficult for him to spend time on the important issues facing the museum.

“The one thing they didn’t require me to do is inform them when I had to go to the bathroom,” he said.

He and some former members of the board are calling for change on the MAC board.

“The museum board is a self-selecting board that is not accountable to anyone and yet it is considered by the attorney general to be a governing board of a state agency,” Rodgers said.

The MAC board is officially the Eastern Washington State Historical Society Board of Trustees. It is a state governmental board.

Moye and three other former board members wrote to Gov. Jay Inslee and Spokane’s legislative delegation last week expressing concerns about a lack of legislative oversight of the board and other issues. They also say the current board appears to be moving away from a plan to become less dependent on state government funds.

Tension between some board members and Rodgers grew last summer over disagreement about where in the museum Rodgers planned to house an exhibit of contemporary art from the United Arab Emirates. The exhibit was organized by Meridian International Center, a nonprofit that promotes cultural diplomacy and cross-cultural exploration of arts and culture.

Rodgers said he and the president of the museum’s foundation board were handed an unsigned memo that he took as a threat, saying the exhibit had to be moved to a more prominent location in the museum. He believes the memo was written by Butler and other board members.

Moye also said he felt the memo appeared to be a threat.

At the time, an exhibit celebrating the 100th anniversary of the museum was in the main gallery and another exhibit was taking up other space.

Failure to move the United Arab Emirates exhibit “jeopardizes the future of the MAC by sowing doubt about MAC leadership in the minds of current and potential donors” and “jeopardizes future funding,” the unsigned memo said.

Rodgers responded by writing to the MAC’s attorney, who serves in the state attorney general’s office, that he believed Butler had acted inappropriately and had a conflict of interest since she served on a Meridian committee and had edited the texts of the exhibits for Meridian.

The issue was reviewed informally by the executive director of the Washington State Executive Ethics Board, who said Butler’s actions did not appear to be “a violation of the conflict of interest provisions, however there may be an appearance of a conflict of interest.”

Butler did not serve on the MAC board when the museum decided to bring the exhibit to Spokane. Also, she is a volunteer with Meridian and doesn’t receive compensation from the group.

“My relationship with Meridian is really one of support,” Butler said. “I’m essentially a copy editor free of charge.”

Butler declined to say if she participated in the creation of the memo but noted that both sides of the debate worked on a compromise that led to a better outcome.

“I don’t think there was any intention to threaten anyone on that memo,” Butler said.

Rodgers agreed that the compromise was a good solution, but he disagreed that the memo was needed to reach the outcome.

“There was a positive result; it was not a result without unnecessary controversy,” Rodgers said.

He also said he believes his termination was largely done in retaliation for his handling of that exhibit plus his efforts to address possible conflicts of interest.

Rodgers led the museum at a difficult time as its funding suffered in the recession. His supporters say he worked hard to move the museum to more sound financial footing, less reliant on state funds. They also say he understood the changing role of museums and had built important relationships with donors and legislators.

“I thought he was a wonderful executive director,” said Elizabeth Kelley, a MAC board member who resigned last month because she disagreed with the firing. The vote to terminate Rodgers was unanimous, but Kelley was out of town at the time.

But there have been other critics beyond those who serve on the MAC board.

After Rodgers rejoined the museum, an employee filed a whistleblower complaint against him, alleging gender discrimination. A state investigation cleared him of those allegations but found deep division on the staff about Rodgers’ leadership.

“It is more than likely that Mr. Rogers’ leadership and communication since August 2012 has had a significant and detrimental impact on the MAC,” the final state report said.

Rodgers argues that there was bound to be division after the way the board fired him. He also says some of the dissatisfaction was due to changes he was implementing, in part to deal with major budget problems.

Another whistleblower complaint was filed in October. The state has confirmed it is investigating, but won’t say what it’s about.

Rodgers says it stems from the museum’s unusual role as a state agency that has a separate private foundation.

“The auditors identified a number of our policies and procedures that had been standard operating procedures for decades but were not in compliance with state regulations.”

Rodgers, 64, says he plans to stay in Spokane at least until his teenage daughters get through high school. His wife works as a mental health therapist at Shaw Middle School, and he will look for other work.

“At this point my concern is now for the future of the museum and its ability to be that community cultural center that people have long wanted it to become.”