Saturday, July 31, 2010

Library Crisis Hits the Press and the Blogosphere

The looming controversy over the Jones Library that I recently mentioned has now reached the press and the rest of the blogosphere.  Meetings of the Jones Library trustees on Thursday afternoon and evening attracted unusual public attention and at least two newspaper articles that I've seen.

As Diane Lederman of the Republican reports, the 4:00 meeting drew an uncharacteristically large turnout for what would otherwise have been a rather arcane and mundane matter:
A Select Board member [NB: not I] who attended the meeting called the process “bizarre.”

Former trustees, the president of the Jones Library Friends and other residents turned out to hear the evaluation of Bonnie J. Isman, who has been at the library for more than 30 years.

But trustee Carol J. Gray, a member of the three-member evaluation sub-committee, said the meeting with Isman needed to be held in closed session because they were talking about the process of the evaluation and not the evaluation itself. The subcommittee did not even allow other trustees to remain in the room.
Lederman goes on to cite various citizens who questioned the handling of the matter, including longtime former trustee Nancy Gregg, who said that the evaluation process had in the past been handled more expeditiously and without contention. This year, according to Lederman, the subcommittee "has met dozens of times" since January, "sometimes twice a week." The subcommittee insists that it is simply attempting to be methodical and bring new rigor to the task.

Writing in the Gazette, Scott Merzbach summarized the concerns of dissenting trustee Chris Hoffmann:
"The damage this power struggle has caused to staff morale, and the damage to our ability to serve our patrons, continues to mount," Hoffmann wrote. "And now a person's reputation and career are in danger of being destroyed."

He argues that a performance evaluation should be positive, citing accomplishments of the director, while also containing constructive advice when there is criticism.

"The written evaluation of a director is supposed to be the formal record of an ongoing, collaborative process of feedback and suggestions," Hoffman [sic] wrote. "It is not supposed to be an ambush sprung after seven months of planning."
Lederman's account adds:
In an e-mail, Hoffman [sic] said Gray told him that “once the director read everything they were planning to put into their report she was hoping that, given her (Isman’s) age, the Director will prefer to retire quietly rather than take on the members of the Committee and dispute its report.”

He said Gray had researched Isman’s contract, town personnel policies, and Isman’s employment history, and estimated the amount of pension Isman could receive for retiring at various dates. “Based on this, Trustee Gray thought she could make Director Isman announce her retirement before the end of the year.”
I was not able to attend the afternoon meeting—ironically or appropriately enough, because I was enrolled in an intensive two-day workshop on  book conservation techniques for librarians and binders (more on that later, on the book blog)—but when I learned of the 7:30 session upon my return, I headed downtown to the community room of the Police Room, where an audience at least as large as the previous one had gathered.  Members of the public repeatedly pressed the subcommittee on the issue of openness. In response to persistent questions, trustee Carol Gray, with equal persistence, defended the need for executive session on the grounds of confidentiality pertaining to personnel issues, as confirmed by Town Counsel.

One Town Meeting member noted a paradox:  the interviews with employees were said to have taken place in open meetings—so that a newspaper reporter (or blogger) could in theory have recorded and published the entire discussion verbatim—and yet the subcommittee refused to release even the summaries of the interviews on grounds of confidentiality:  was this correct?  The affirmation by the subcommittee met with derisive laughter. Several employees, whose complaints had already led to letters of protest by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), revealed that they had been refused the right to see notes or transcripts of their own interviews.  When asked why they would need to do so, they explained that it was because they were not confident their remarks would be cited accurately or in the spirit in which they had been made. The subcommittee pointed out that all commentary in the evaluation would be without attribution and that confidentiality was in any case a requirement here.  Some members of the public again reacted with laughter.  The conversation continued for a while longer in this vein, and then the trustees turned to their regular business, from the need for a long-range capital plan to the desirability of staff name tags.  (Director Bonnie Isman arrived only after this point.)

Further developments

Local blogger Larry Kelley picked up the story on his widely read "Only in the Republic of Amherst" and in addition posted Chris Hoffmann's document (see my previous post) in its entirety.

As a result of the controversy over  the review of Library Director Isman, the Select Board has already received one inquiry regarding the recall process for elected officials.  The answer we gave is that we have none.  (The proposed Charters that failed to secure public approval in recent years included such measures, but the current Town Government Act [p. 77] does not.)

Underlying Issues and Implications

These issues surrounding the relationship between the trustee subcommiteee and Director Bonnie Isman are of interest to me not only because of my involvement with books and libraries in professional and personal life, or because they implicitly affect all of us who live here, but also for more abstract reasons.  I have served or continue to serve on the boards of several small non-profits and work with directors of such groups.  I am also acting co-chair of a presidential Governance Task Force at Hampshire College, and as a result have been reviewing all our governance documents and procedures as well as reading the literature put out by the Association of Governing Boards.  I have therefore been thinking a lot about authority, democracy, procedures, transparency, fairness, and the like.

It is frequently the case that there is, at best, confusion, and at worst, conflict, over the nature and boundaries of the "governing" versus "managing" functions of museums, libraries, and similar non-profit organizations. In academe and citizen government, the problems are somewhat different but nonetheless related:  there, an ethos of participatory democracy sometimes leads to confusion or disagreement between administrators and other groups over the meaning of "shared governance."  Admittedly, conflicts are most likely when individuals are ill-informed or show insufficient respect for boundaries, but even under the best of circumstances, problems can arise because of the need to reconcile several essential but at times competing interests:  participation vs. efficiency, confidentiality vs. accountability, and so forth.

Even the standard job performance review common to all these organizations has become increasingly controversial. I recently shared with Task Force colleagues an interview with UCLA business professor Samuel Culbert, who provocatively argues that annual performance reviews should be abolished.  "'First, they're dishonest and fraudulent. And second, they're just plain bad management,' he says."  You really need to read it for yourself, but in essence, he argues that, although some form of assessment is essential, our standard "periodic reviews create circumstances that help neither the employee nor the company to improve." "[W]hile the alleged purpose of performance reviews is to enlighten subordinates about what they should be doing better, the real purpose is intimidation aimed at preserving the boss's authority and domination in relationships." (As I said, it's controversial.)

I know that I'll continue to think a lot about these issues in the coming weeks because, as chance would have it, the Select Board has begun the annual process of reviewing the Town Manager's job performance, in which I will be taking part for the first time.  An article in the current Bulletin describes the overall process and requirements of confidentiality, identifies some representative goals, and explains how the public can participate.  Perhaps the coincidence of these two reviews will provide a salutary opportunity for all of us to consider the principles and mechanisms of such processes and how they can best serve the needs of the employees in question and the town as a whole.

One may dare to hope that the evolving Library controversy will turn out to be ultimately instructive rather than purely destructive. We all have too much at stake. 

Media coverage:

• Diane Lederman, "Controversy surrounds evaluation of director of Amherst's Jones Library," Springfield Republican, 29 July
• Scott Merzbach, "Amherst librarian's review spurs dustup for trustees," Daily Hampshire Gazette, 30 July
[note: subscriber wall may limit access]

[Sat.: updated links]
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LarryK4 said...

What do you mean by "rest of the blogosphere?" Do you occupy a fair to middling portion or what? (just kidding)

Although I'm surprised both Lederman and Merzbach--both good reporters--misspelled Chris Hoffmann's name (yeah, I triple checked it before hitting the publish button as I too misspelled his surname while in draft form.)

Citizen Wald said...

On the contrary. "rest of the blogosphere"=everyone beyond my two readers. ;}