The executive director is on medical leave. A longtime leader in the organization resigned in September. And a staffer many credit with being essential to the program was laid off Tuesday.

What's going on at the Arts Council of Kern?

Many in the arts community are stunned over the dismissal of Nicole Saint-John, a respected local artist who joined ACK in 2009 and has filled a variety of roles since she's been there, including leading the visual arts programs and working with young audiences.

But the larger conversation for some time has been about the performance of Executive Director Michael Millar, who has been with the council since summer of last year.

Millar is being treated for an unspecified medical condition but is expected to return, according to Arts Council board president David Coffey. At an emergency meeting of the board last week, Coffey was named interim director and given authority to implement any austerity measures he deems fit to shore up the organization, staggered by the economy and the loss of two contracts that accounted for half of the Arts Council's budget.

Coffey, who commented on Millar's status during a conversation Tuesday, declined to address Saint-John's dismissal, but board treasurer Jan Fulton said Wednesday the layoff was necessary.

"I've always loved Nicole's work, and I like what she's done and I realize, sure, (her layoff) could be a concern to a degree. But I'm hoping people understand there was no ill intent on our part. We're just trying to make the organization as strong as it can be."

As for the timing of the layoff, during Millar's absence, Fulton said, "It could not wait. Our expenses are exceeding our funding. We have to show we're being fiscally prudent."

Saint-John, who declined to speak about the issue Wednesday, sent The Californian a statement via email:

"I was laid off by ACK board president David Coffey on Tuesday just prior to the morning staff meeting. He did not thank me for my service or apologize for taking away my job. He told me that I had to evacuate my cubicle immediately. After I told him that was not possible because I rode my bicycle to work, he told me that they would try to accommodate me and walked off. I was told that laying me off was the best of all available choices to serve the interests of the Arts Council. I was not given any severance pay."

Jill Egland, who left the Arts Council in September for a position at the United Way, still consults for the council and was saddened by the news of Saint-John's dismissal.

"Nicole being fired for austerity measures is paradoxically gutting the Arts Council of its ability to respond to its 'access, advocacy and education' mission. I think the real tragedy, though, occurred in July 2011, when the board took this out-of-towner -- a really nice guy with strong connections to the L.A. music scene -- and placed him in a job that required him to be someone he's not."

Egland's stinging assessment of Millar gets to the heart of two pervasive criticisms of him:

He's never become a true part of the community because he lives in Santa Clarita and that he hasn't done enough to bring money into the council. But Fulton and Coffey reject that assessment.

"It was never a condition of employment to move here," Coffey said Tuesday. "He's raised awareness of the Arts Council.

"Locally, it's tough for anyone to assume that role and hit the ground with every contact you'd want. He's done tremendous work with the board, with mission statements and strategic plans."

But Egland -- who applied for the position that went to Millar -- pointed out that Bakersfield is a town of connections.

"Walking into a leadership position with community relationships in place is a huge plus," Egland said. "It's more than a huge plus. It's really essential."

As for Millar's fundraising abilities, longtime board member Margaret Lemucchi said:

"Our funding probably could have been better over the last two years since he's been in. Even with the recession, it could have been better. Some don't see things improving if we stay on the course we're on."

To right the course, the board is doing a variety of things, including initiating an external audit and exploring organizational and structural changes, according to board secretary Lynne Hall.

But the real hit to funding came not from the recession but the unexpected loss of about $550,000 in contracts last winter, Fulton said. That figure represents nearly half of the council's operating budget of $1.2 million.

That blow has Egland and Lemucchi fearing for the future of the venerable organization, which has worked to promote the arts and artists, and educate schoolchildren since 1977.

"I will say that the Arts Council plays a very vital role in the community," Egland said. "Over the past decade, many counties lost their arts councils due to budget reasons, and Kern has always managed to keep going to find creative ways of addressing economic issues that face it. And it'll be a great tragedy if the county loses its Arts Council."