Friday, August 27, 2010

Tourism official to fight firing

Betsy Baumgart, who until Friday served as the state's top tourism official, said she plans to challenge her Aug. 20 firing by newly appointed Montana Department of Commerce Director Dore Schwinden.

Baumgart spoke publicly about her dismissal for the first time Thursday in an interview with the Tribune.

She said she had no indication that she would be fired when she walked into a meeting in Schwinden's office a week ago.

Baumgart, who had been the division administrator for the commerce department's Montana Promotion Division, said her dismissal was "unjustified and unwarranted."

"I worked for three years under (former Commerce Director Mark) Simonich. I worked for five-and-a-half years under (recently retired Director Tony) Preite. During that time, all of my performance evaluations were positive," Baumgart said. "I worked under Director Schwinden for three weeks; and within three weeks he determined that he was going to terminate me."

Baumgart said she arrived for a scheduled meeting in Schwinden's office last Friday to discuss tourism-related issues.

"Very quickly I realized that it had turned into a pretermination meeting," Baumgart said.

She said when she arrived for the meeting, Schwinden offered her a glass of water and then left the room. He returned moments later with the glass of water, but he wasn't alone. He was accompanied by Marty Roos, a human-resources manager for the department.

"They asked me if I wanted to resign," Baumgart said. "I told them I wouldn't resign because I hadn't done anything wrong. I was totally caught off-guard."

Baumgart declined to say what reason Schwinden and Roos gave for the termination because she is considering challenging the decision. She said she has discussed the matter with an attorney.

Schwinden confirmed Monday that Baumgart no longer worked for the department, but declined to give a reason for her departure.

Marissa Kozel, communications director for the Commerce Department, did not return multiple messages left at her office and on her cell phone voicemail.

Baumgart's firing came as a shock to many in the state's tourism community. Those interviewed earlier this week said they admired the job Baumgart did during her tenure as head of the state tourism office, and were saddened to hear of her departure.

"She's been a very competent administrator and she's been a tireless travel advocate for the state," Webb Brown, president of the Montana Chamber of Commerce, said Monday.

Baumgart said she has received numerous phone calls of support from former colleagues and other members of the state's tourism industry since the story of her firing broke on Tuesday.

She added that the past week has been a shock.

"Sometimes I don't even believe that it's real," Baumgart said. "It makes me sad, but then I get mad. I loved the job and I felt I had the opportunity to work with the most dedicated people I have ever had the opportunity to work for."

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