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Planetarium workers 'gagged'

The sole public voice is new interim director

In the midst of the rhetoric flying between two mayors in the debate over the Hansen Planetarium's future, there is silence.

Silence from all the employees at the organization, save one: Seth Jarvis.

Jarvis, the interim director, has been on board since Feb. 1 and did work at the planetarium for 12 years, but that was more than 10 years ago.

He's the only one allowed to speak to the media or speak on behalf of the institution's future, and what's best for it.

The gag order came down last week in a meeting of department heads and managers at the planetarium, said Kerry Steadman, deputy director of Salt Lake County's Community Services.

"We would like to have one kind of thought about where we want to go and what we want to do," Steadman says. "It would be difficult with 30 or 35 employees all speaking about the planetarium."

Jarvis was named to his post by Salt Lake County Mayor Nancy Workman in February. He was picked for the position by a selection committee that included Brent Sloan, chairman of the board for the Children's Museum of Utah.

The history, nature and timing of the appointment call into question having Jarvis as the sole voice of the planetarium, however.

"He was a choice of the Children's Museum, and basically to restrict it to someone who only recently came on board seems rather silly," said James Davis, a planetarium marketing assistant who quit last week.

It stands to reason that Sloan would want some voice in who should be at the helm of the planetarium, because his organization won the management contract to run the institution.

The contract, however, has yet to be signed.

The proposed pairing of the institutions with an Imax theater at the Gateway Development has generated a war of words between Gateway supporters and its detractors.

Jarvis has strongly decried an alternate proposal to have the planetarium part of a science center at the Library block at 500 South and 200 East, lining up with Sloan in favor of Gateway and joining Workman at a press conference to slam the library block proposal.

Many employees, frankly, aren't enamored with either proposal and are weary of learning the majority of the information about their future via the media.

"I hope the voices of the planetarium employees are heard and I hope the voices of the taxpayers are heard, but I'm not very optimistic. It becomes disheartening to learn about your future in the paper," Davis said.

Davis stressed he didn't quit because of the current controversy and simply wants the planetarium to continue to educate kids.

In the growing debate, however, planetarium employees have been relegated to the position like that of a child: to not be heard, and to also not be seen.

Employees have not been encouraged to attend any of the discussions by the Salt Lake County Council hashing out the institution's future location, a decision in which they have a lot at stake.

If they insist on going, they have to take vacation time, and they're carefully monitored in terms of whom they talk to.

"We've not discouraged them from attending," Steadman said. "What we want to indicate to them is they have a job to do at the planetarium. We don't want them to give the public the impression they don't have anything to do."

But Salt Lake County Council member Joe Hatch was dismayed at the gag order and discouraging employees from attending meetings, especially since Jarvis chastised the County Council members last week for failing to visit the planetarium and talk to the employees to learn their feelings.

"I'm very surprised and shocked that they're not to talk and not to participate in the debate, and not able to give their input," Hatch said, "especially given his comments at the last meeting."

Steadman, Jarvis said, is soliciting employees' input for a presentation he'll make to make to the County Council March 20.