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County pulls back on interim Western Montana Fair manager post

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Missoula County will take a step back before it strides into the brave new world of interim fair management.

Administrative officials called off a meeting Thursday with Buck Smith to talk about Smith taking over temporary administration of the county fairgrounds and the 2010 Western Montana Fair in the wake of manager Scot Meader's resignation.

Smith, a former fair board trustee, volunteered for the job earlier this week.

"We've actually slowed the process down a little bit and we're trying to look at some other options as well," said Dale Bickell, the county's chief administrative officer. "The commissioners are interested in making sure that we're doing this methodically."

Part of the dilemma is that an interim manager will likely become a county employee who'll need to be paid. Steve Johnson, the county's human resources director, said there needs to be a determination of how much work such a person would need to do.

He or she "might not be involved at quite the level of detail as a regular manager," said Johnson. "That's one of the issues we need to figure out. How much time do we anticipate this is going to take somebody?"

Meader's attorney negotiated a $71,776 buyout, which Johnson said is for the remaining 12-plus months of a three-year contract worth $69,000 a year.

Meader's last day on the job is Friday, but he'll be paid as usual through March 6. At that point, he'll receive the $63,000 remaining on a contract that runs through Feb. 7, 2011.

"It's likely the fair budget can't bear the entire brunt of the payoff to Scot and, depending on what we do, if we have to hire an interim manager at a higher cost," Bickell said.

Johnson and Bickell have both heard criticism of the county for settling with Meader instead of firing him. Meader's resignation was precipitated by controversy surrounding his conduct at a Montana Circuit Finals Rodeo event in Great Falls in January 2009. Meader was accused of groping two women by one of the two, Shannone Hart of Missoula.

Johnson said that from his standpoint, Bickell took care of the issue with a verbal reprimand when Meader brought it to his attention several months later.

"I think from all our perspectives that resolved the issue," said Johnson.

To further discipline Meader now would amount to "double jeopardy," he said. "We'd essentially be punishing him twice for the same infraction. I felt fairly certain that it would be litigated, and I was concerned that we'd end up spending three times as much on attorney fees as we did just trying to get the thing resolved."

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Bickell said he and county commissioners Jean Curtiss, Bill Carey and Michele Landquist "are going to be interested in being pretty active" in the reorganization at the fairgrounds.

"I know, speaking for myself, I have said I want to be very active in sitting on whatever committees need to be sat on," Landquist said. "I think that we should approach this like we do some of the other boards that we sit on."

The task becomes complicated because Crandall Arambula, the planning firm hired by the county to work with Meader and Bickell to study future fair and fairgrounds possibilities, is due back in town soon. The company is slated to reveal its final findings to the commissioners at a public hearing Feb. 10.

Bickell said he talked with Jason Graf, project manager for Crandall Arambula, on Wednesday.

"We want to continue with the Feb. 10 meeting, but we're going to try to get through the next two days and then we're going to huddle with them on a conference call next week."

Bickell wants to put together an advisory committee or committees consisting of fairgrounds users, fair superintendents and any others who have stake in the fairgrounds.

Johnson said there has already been "quite a bit of interest" in either the interim manager position, or that of the eventual fair manager. One person wanted to submit a resume on Thursday, but the county needs to iron out a job description first.

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Meader, who has agreed to work with an interim replacement to make a smooth transition, feels "very comfortable" with Smith, said his attorney, Matt Thiel.

Others have expressed reservations. After 16 years on the fair board, the last three as chairman, Smith resigned from the board in the middle of the 2007 fair. Plans for a revamped fairgrounds were on display, and Smith cited disagreements with the direction the majority of the board was taking.

Three weeks later, county commissioners disbanded the whole fair board.

"There is some of that past history, but I know all the dealings I've had with Buck have been great," Bickell said. "It's just that there are other folks and other ways to do this, and we've got to look at everything."

Most of the larger contracts for the 2010 fair are either signed or pending, but Johnson said there's a lot of "detail-oriented stuff" that remains.

Discussions with a private company, Oneida Capital, to revive horse racing at the 2010 fair are still alive. Commissioners told Oneida president Eric Spector in December they wanted a deal wrapped up by mid-January.

"Honestly, the situation we've been dealing with has slowed that process down a little bit, but I think we're very close," Bickell said. "Negotiations have been going very well, and I'm hopeful that we can bring it back."

Kim Briggeman can be reached at 523-5266 or at kbriggeman@missoulian.com.

 

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