Six weeks ahead of fair, county shakes up staff

Posted 6/24/21

For the fourth time in six years, Park County leaders have shaken up their staffing for the annual fair.

Last week, the county dismissed Events Administrator Audra Jewell. Jewell, who had been …

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Six weeks ahead of fair, county shakes up staff


For the fourth time in six years, Park County leaders have shaken up their staffing for the annual fair.

Last week, the county dismissed Events Administrator Audra Jewell. Jewell, who had been with the county since January 2016, handled the bulk of the preparations for the annual fair.

Although much of the work for this year’s event has already been done, county officials are now hurrying to figure out what tasks remain before the fair starts on July 27.

“Fair will still go on; it just might not be as smooth as it could have been,” said Mike Garza, who supervises both the buildings and grounds and the events departments.

At a special Monday meeting, some members of the Park County Fair Advisory Board expressed frustration about the change being made so close to the fair — particularly after Garza expressed uncertainty about what preparations remain.

“Did anybody in the county consider the consequences of firing somebody who had all the cards, who ran so much?” board member Christy Muecke said.

When Garza responded that he’d “been considering it for two years” — roughly the length of time he worked with Jewell — Muecke pressed on why a change was made now.

“... It seems like as professionals and as adults, we could have fixed this problem or dealt with it after [the fair], before making such a catastrophic decision,” Muecke said, adding, “It’s not fair to the county, the people coming to the fair. It’s just not right.”

None of the details about what led Garza to make the change were shared at Monday’s meeting and Jewell declined to comment.

Commissioner Scott Mangold said he’d only heard about the unspecified personnel “issues” last week. He defended the timing, saying “you couldn’t wait in this instance.”

Speaking as a business owner, “if I’ve got an employee that might be detrimental to my business, I’ve got to lay him off and I can’t look to, ‘Well, gee, I’d like to stretch him out a little bit longer,’” Mangold said.

Jewell’s June 16 removal put the planning for the fair in the lurch.

“There’s a lot that she did that people weren’t aware of and we’re now finding out what those [things] were,” Garza said, who took on the management of the events department in 2019.

As of Monday, he said he had been unable to access her email or county phone or log into the fair and event department’s social media accounts, nor had he located a flowchart that Jewell had put together of fair-related tasks.

“I haven’t had time to go through her entire desk. I mean, not to sound like fair doesn’t mean anything, but this isn’t the only thing that I do,” Garza told the board, describing himself as a department head who now has three jobs.

“But this [job of overseeing the fair] is a really important one,” chimed in board member Teresa Merager, “and it’s one that a couple years ago you decided to take on. You said you could do this to save the county money. So we have this commitment; it can’t be, ‘I can’t do it.’”

Garza responded that he took on the responsibility understanding that he’d have a full staff. “So when that changes, how do you honor the commitment?”

Merager told the department head he had to “dig in.”

“We just cannot say ‘can’t,’” she said. “We have to figure out how we’re going to make this work.”

Garza responded that it will work and that things will be done by the opening of the fair; Merager added that the board is trying to help.

During the roughly hour-and-a-half long meeting, Garza asked the board to think of tasks that still need to be completed for the fair; they discussed a host of items, such as determining how many meal tickets would be needed, finding out why cash drawers were ordered, locating the tokens used at the beer garden, tracking down additional superintendents, finalizing contracts with judges and figuring out how to get into a vault.

Garza also said he needed to learn the online service used to sell tickets for fair events and camping spots and the ShoWorks software used to manage fair entries. 

Muecke voiced some frustration with Garza’s suggestion that the volunteer board members would need to take on some of the duties that Jewell, a paid staffer, had been handling.

“The county should have thought about what is going to happen to our fair and who’s going to be able to step up to the plate before somebody was let go this close to a grand production,” she said.

Mangold said the county was not asking the board to take on all of Jewell’s duties and that Garza “knew that he was going to have to do a lot more work when this all occurred.”

Mangold said the commission plans to replace the events administrator, but that process could take weeks — and help has been hard to find anyway, with Garza currently short on applications for many fair week positions.

“I think between all of us we can do one person’s job, I think,” Mangold said.

“If we can figure out what the job is,” quipped new board member Andrea Earhart.

Earhart agreed to lend a hand, including by getting up to speed on the ShoWorks software and going through files.

The fair leaders brainstormed various people that could be brought in to help on a temporary basis, such as potentially trying to borrow a Big Horn County Fair employee for a day. They discussed the idea of reaching out to prior Park County Fair employees, but “some of those staff have left on not the best of terms with the county,” noted Garza. “Unfortunately, this is a book that’s been read a couple of times.”

In 2011, Fair Manager Steve Scott resigned a month before the fair after disagreements with the board. Then in 2015, clashes between the commission-directed buildings and grounds department and the board-directed fair director, Jennifer Lohrenz, prompted commissioners to totally reorganize the operation. They eliminated Lohrenz’s position and replaced her with an events coordinator, who answers to commissioners, and reduced the power of the fair board to an advisory capacity.

However, that didn’t solve the problems. The county’s first events coordinator, Echo Renner, resigned in December 2016 after more conflicts with the buildings and grounds department, the board and commissioners. Teecee Barrett replaced Renner as events coordinator, but she was fired by commissioners in March 2019. Commissioners then decided to have Garza and Jewell effectively absorb the duties of the position.

At Monday’s meeting, board members expressed frustration with the frequency with which the county has reshuffled its fair staff.

“This seems like a common occurrence,” member Sara Skalsky said, to agreement.

“It seems like every year-and-a-half, we have this conversation,” Skalsky continued. “And it’s getting old.”

Muecke added that, “we’re on this board because we’re passionate — we love fair. We want it to succeed, and it feels like there’s other people without that passion.

“It’s frustrating,” she said.

The board plans to meet again next week to continue helping to prepare for the 2021 Park County Fair.

(Editor's note: This version of the story removes a statement that the Park County Commission discussed the situation in a closed-door executive session on Tuesday.)