Kids from Helper Junior High attempt to gain access to the Western Mining and Railroad Museum last Thursday. The students were unaware that the museum had closed due to the resignation of the facility's administration and volunteer staff. The WMRRM will remain closed until new staff and volunteers can be found.
Helper mining and railroad director Sue Ann Martell resigned on Dec. 9 amid a state audit.
The situation involves allegations flying from the former museum director as well as members of the Helper City Council.
Martell claimed that her work environment had become hostile and she had concerns about appropriations of museum garnered funds.
Helper Mayor Mike Dalpiaz confirmed the ongoing audit, but maintained that Martell's allegations were false.
"She voluntarily terminated her employment and asking someone questions does not make their work environment hostile," said Dalpiaz in a telephone interview Thursday. "There is, however, an ongoing state audit concerning the museum's finances."
According to Helper city recorder Jona Skerl, it is not only the museum that is open to audit.
"State officials are also auditing Helper city's procedures," said Skerl.
Martell contended that city officials would not answer questions about the museum's upcoming budget or building expansion funds. She also stated that she could never get copies of current expenditures or the current budget.
"The museum wanted to go in one direction and evolve and be progressive and it seemed that the city wanted to go in the other direction," said Martell.
Helper Councilmember Dean Armstrong disputed the fact that information was withheld.
"There have been claims that we would not release public information concerning the museum and that is simply not true," said Armstrong. "The budget is of public record. If Sue Ann had a conflict with the city government she could have talked with others in the city about it, she could have addressed the council as a whole."
From his vantage point, Armstrong indicated that it appeared communications had broken down between audit officials and and the museum staff.
"I would hold judgment on anything until the audit is over but it appears there was not a good accounting trail between the money that was coming into the museum and what was going back out to contractors and the city. There were fiscal controls that were lacking and the city didn't feel that they could sort through the matter, so they asked the state auditors to come down and investigate the situation. An audit is not always a bad thing but from the beginning there was tension where the audit was concerned."
Additionally, Armstrong commented that if "communications had broken down between the point man at the museum and its director then she should have contacted the council as a whole about a hostile work environment and appropriation of funds."
Several members of the museum's volunteer staff have also reportedly resigned along with one confirmed member of the board of directors. Helper city is currently looking for a replacement for the director as the situation has caused the museum to close for an indeterminate amount of time, according to all officials contacted.
"The loss of Sue Ann Martell as director is a severe blow to the Museum, to Helper, and to the Castle Valley, said WMRRM boardmember Malcolm Howard. "Sue Ann has done an exemplary job of directing the activities of the museum and raising funds for the planned expansion. This community owes her a great debt of gratitude. She will be sorely missed."
Councilmember P.J. Jensen also had concerns about the resignation of Martell. Jensen is the building committee chairperson and sits on the historic preservation committee, which used to meet at the museum but will now move.
"We had an executive session on the fourth of this month that changed the way I look at several issues within the city," said Jensen. "I agree that the work environment has been hostile at the museum, when I was there as a volunteer everything would be fine until there was mention of the audit. When the audit was brought up around city administration you could cut the tension with a knife."
A situation that again, should have been brought before the council contended councilmember Armstrong.
"I think the accounting got messy but I think it was something we could have worked through. I think Sue Ann's resignation is a loss for the city but we will move forward and things will continue. The audit will continue and hopefully the city will learn a lot from it. Unfortunately, the resignation of the volunteers is only hurting the city of Helper and tourism in the area. It's not a positive reaction and it hurts the greater community."