What Exactly Is Happening With MagFest Staff?

Not all is well within the halls of MAGFest these days. Conflict over the organization’s leadership (and an active group of staffers taking issue with MAGFest’s Executive Director Paul Birtel) has led to the firing and removal of several staff members.

That’s probably the simplest way to explain this, but it’s far from complete.

Honestly digging into this story is incredibly difficult, as most of the available information was assembled by (some might argue rightfully) angry staff members. The group “Friends of MAGFest” allege on their website that Birtel and the Board:

  • Harassed and threatened multiple office employees
  • Harassed and threatened multiple volunteers, including the staff-elected board nominees
  • Asked employees to compromise their personal and professional ethics in the course of their normal job duties
  • Not responded in a timely manner to formal HR complaints made about the Executive Director by all 6 full-time employees
  • Not taken appropriate steps to resolve formal HR complaints made about the Executive Director by all 6 full-time employees
  • Not communicated any resolution to formal HR complaints made about the Executive Director by all 6 full-time employees
  • Subverted existing HR procedures in order to retaliate against and discipline employees inappropriately
  • Subverted existing internal procedures in order to retaliate against and discipline volunteers, including the staff-elected board nominees, inappropriately
  • Created a culture of fear and secrecy around all dealings with them
  • Removed employees from key situations, including those in the employees’ written and signed job descriptions, with no warning or explanation
  • Delayed and subsequently refused to add staff-elected board nominees to the board
  • Refused to act on any attempts at feedback, honesty, and collaboration from employees, staff, and volunteers
  • Took attempts at feedback, honesty, and collaboration as material for retaliation against employees, staff, and volunteers
  • Acted in bad faith, repeatedly and unquestionably, to the detriment of the organization and everyone in it

Now parsing out these claims is difficult, as the groups documentation, which you can read here, isn’t exactly well organized. To be frank, it’s a little opaque to dive into. I’ve also had problems verifying some of these accusations within the claims themselves. It’s clear though that Events Director Debra Lenik felt she was being treated unfairly by Birtel and the organization’s board.

Which might be true, as Birtel just fired her.

Three other members of staff we also removed, and reportedly a number of volunteers have been banned from the event. Some members of the MAGFest Board have put out a response to the situation dissenting from the rest of the board, and the whole thing is a mess. We reached out to MAGFest for comment, but haven’t received a response. Honestly… this whole thing is strange, and with HR documentation it’s unclear if Lenik’s dismissal might be considered a violation of employer anti-retaliation laws as some have claimed. Of course, it’s not even clear that “Friends of MAGFest” are in the right in the first place, with so many of the details to back their claims hard to find. What is apparent though is that it might be difficult to continue running events when your organization starts going to war with itself.

Trae Dorn

Trae Dorn has been staffing conventions for over twenty years, and is a co-founder of Wisconsin’s longest running Anime convention No Brand Con. Trae also wrote and drew the now completed webcomic UnCONventional, and produces the podcasts BS-Free Witchcraft, On This Day With Trae, Stormwood & Associates, and The Nerd & Tie Podcast. This leads many to ask when the hell they have time to actually do anything anymore. Trae says they have the time because they “do it all quite poorly.”

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