St. Mary's City dispute ends in ouster of popular director Supporters confront commission, are angry museum chief fTC leaving

May 02, 1998|By Candus Thomson | Candus Thomson,SUN STAFF Sun staff writer Erin Texeira contributed to this article.

ST. MARY'S CITY -- A showdown in the tiny waterfront town of St. Mary's City ended yesterday when Benjamin C. Bradlee, chairman of the Historic St. Mary's City Commission, told 40 angry residents that the site's popular executive director had resigned.

But Bradlee would not tell supporters of Candace Matelic, 45, the circumstances of her departure after less than a year at the head of the state's outdoor living-history museum.

The terms of a potential agreement with Matelic barred him from discussing the matter, he told a crowd that confronted him and other members of the commission at its regular meeting.

"You're buying her out and it's not fair," snapped resident Kitty Turner, who held up a homemade sign: "We Want Candace to Stay."

Matelic, who was not at the meeting, told a reporter she won't talk until she has in hand a severance package. Her salary was not disclosed.

Bradlee, who had been on the search committee that recruited Matelic last spring, later insisted she was not fired. "We all voted to shut up," said Bradlee as he left a private meeting where the weeklong controversy was discussed among the commissioners.

The site of Maryland's first capital is an outdoor museum and archaeological park that interprets 17th-century history for the public.

Employees of the museum, an arm of the state's Department of Housing and Community Development, signed a letter of support on behalf of Matelic. But they declined to comment, saying they feared retribution if they talk about the turmoil surrounding her leaving.

Longtime residents say Bradlee, a former Washington Post executive editor who has a home in St. Mary's County, didn't easily share power and that Matelic wasn't "country club" enough for the patrician chairman.

The final straw, they say, was Matelic's opposition to hiring an Ohio fund-raising firm for $400,000, a company she felt was not qualified for the job.

Her ouster occurred Monday, when Matelic was called into a meeting with Bradlee and Vice Chairman Shepard W. McKenney, residents and employees say.

Since then, phone lines in St. Mary's have been burning with the news and latest rumors, leading to a showdown at the commission's regular meeting.

Seven speakers, including the Rev. John Ball of Trinity Episcopal Church, praised Matelic's leadership and vision and asked the commission to reconsider.

Ball, also a member of the St. Mary's City Advisory Council, called Matelic "outstanding" and decried her lack of a job description and evaluation process.

"You cannot dismiss her on the basis of her performance as it has been assessed to date," Ball said. "It simply is not just, and we all have a basic right of due process. Forcing Candace Matelic to resign will not solve anything."

Kitty Barnes, a member of the Historic St. Mary's City Citizens' Coalition, said longtime residents were dazzled by her commitment and energy.

"The minute she laid foot on our soil, she was caught up in the spirit of St. Mary's City," said Barnes. "Her love of it all was sincere."

In an emotional speech, Hector Lopez, a retired Navy personnel trouble-shooter, scolded Bradlee, who sat with his arms crossed and often conferred with McKenney.

"She was not the public relations type," he said. "We don't hire people for their social graces, we hire them to get the job done. I think you people are shooting yourselves in the foot. I think you people, you big shots, are exceeding your authority."

Matelic came to St. Mary's from Honolulu, where she was executive director of a national landmark historic site called the Mission Houses Museum. She is co-author of two books, including a museum guidebook, and has been director and professor of Museum Studies at the Cooperstown Graduate Program in History Museum Studies.

She has "over 20 years experience in outdoor museums and historic sites," according to a state press release last year. She worked at the Henry Ford Museum in Detroit, Living History Farms in Iowa and Old Sturbridge Village in Massachusetts, among others.

When her selection was announced May 1, 1997, Matelic said in a statement: "I know firsthand that historic sites and outdoor museums can be powerful vehicles to connect modern day visitors with history. I've seen that magical 'ah-hah' moment occur many times, and never cease to be renewed by the experience."

Some say the departure of Matelic will hurt Historic St. Mary's City.

"Candace was nationally known. Who's going to want to work there now?" asked Doug Alves of the Calvert Marine Museum. "It's not a good sign for their organization."

Ball agreed. "Removing Candace Matelic at this time under these circumstances will seriously diminish St. Mary's City and its mission."

Richard B. Hughes, the state's chief archaeologist, said he was "surprised" to learn yesterday that Matelic was leaving. "The staff people who worked there told me they thought she was a good director. I regret that I never met her."

Pub Date: 5/02/98

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