Friday, August 13, 2010

Jones Library Crisis Continues: an eleventh-hour update

The Jones Library crisis that I announced at the end of last month has continued to deepen and gain ever greater attention. The newspapers have dutifully covered the meetings of the trustees and their evaluation committee, while Larry Kelley's "Only in the Republic of Amherst" and, in particular, its famed often anonymous commenters, have provided even more frequent and, uh, let us say, spirited commentary.  His blog has in addition posted key documents in full, notably, the dissenting report of trustee Chris Hoffmann, and the petition of protest by a distinguished group of citizens associated with the Jones LIbrary and other libraries in the Pioneer Valley.

Until now, the critics of the trustee committee conducting the required annual performance review of longtime Director Bonnie Isman—the ostensible focus of the controversy, but in reality just the most visible manifestation of a deep and growing conflict—have dominated the discussion.  It remains to be seen whether the triumvirate on the evaluation committee—Carol Gray, Pat Holland, and Sarah McKee—who have been talking for over a week about a response to unfair press coverage, can succeed in making their message heard.

Last Wednesday, George Goodwin, Chair of the Jones Friends/Trustee Subcommittee responsible for managing the half-million-dollar Woodbury Gift, wrote a sharp but controlled letter to the Gazette.  Perhaps consciously echoing Emile Zola's "J'accuse," he repeatedly charged the Trustee Evaluation Committee with showing a "lack of empathy":  for the other trustees, for the Friends, for the staff, and "most seriously," for Director Bonnie Isman.

That same evening, the meeting of the trustees, like its recent predecessors, drew an atypically large crowd.  The tension was palpable.  Trustee Chris Hoffmann announced that he was videotaping the meeting, and trustee Carol Gray, that she would be making an audio recording.  The moments of greatest tension came at the beginning, during public comment, and toward the end, when the trustees took up the issue of Carol Gray's desire to remain on the board during a ten-month absence from the country.  Former trustee and current Friends board member Nancy Gregg read a petition from former trustees, members of the Friends of the Library, professional librarians, and other concerned citizens. It called upon the trustees to ask the Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners
to appoint a review committee of persons familiar with the governance and management of public libraries within the Commonwealth to investigate the procedures used by the Jones Library Trustees' Evaluation Committee in reviewing the performance of the Library Director; that the review committee be asked to make recommendations for resolving the controversies between the Trustees' Evaluation Committee and the Director, as well as with other members of the Board of Trustees, particularly with regard to the separate and/or shared roles and responsibilities of the Trustees and Director in the management of the Library (full text)
Trustee Chair Pat Holland responded by saying she hoped to create a board operating on the principle that we are all working to make the library better. There may be be ways to do the review better, she acknowledged, but she wanted a process  “that would help us to go" forward: “the evaluation has been done, we will formally turn it in at the next meeting.” “We will take this petition very seriously,” she assured Ms. Gregg.

Evidently that was not good enough for John Coull, who stood up and declared, with evident passion, "I am distressed by what I have seen,” above all, the harm being done to the institution:
I understand the behavior that I have heard about to be in fact a basic misunderstanding on the part of some members of this board about the roles and responsibilities among the director and trustees . . . .
I also am distressed to hear that an evaluation process has taken place with the possible objective of concluding the employment of a longterm director that is not at all the purpose of an evaluation process.
Chair Pat Holland responded, “we have this terrible dilemma here in that we have an evaluation that must remain confidential.” The Evaluation Committee had a "series of goals" that the director had accepted, and it was simply trying to measure her success in meeting them. And, in a significant declaration:
In no way have we called for her resignation—no way . . . . But we’ll talk about this at the next meeting so I think we should move on with our agenda here.
At this point, Carol Gray, who has been spearheading the trustee drive for change at the Library, including the more rigorous scrutiny of Director Bonnie Isman, asked to read the text of a letter that the Committee had written to the Springfield Republican in order to correct what it regarded as inaccurate coverage—“including serious misquotations,” she said, glaring at fellow trustee Chris Hoffmann. Chair Holland ruled that the issue could wait.  (To date, the Republican has not, as far as I know, seen fit to publish either such letter or a retraction.)

Library trustees deliberate (l.-r.):  Emily Lewis, Pat Holland, Sarah McKee, Carol Gray
Public comment concluded with an employee reading a letter detailing complaints of several members of the Jones Library staff, repeating earlier protests over the nature of their participation in the director's review: concerns that they were being asked about their jobs rather than hers, the feeling that they had been coerced into participating, and the fear that their comments were being misquoted.  (I understand that the trustees have now received the third complaint on labor practices from the Service Employees International Union [SEIU].)

After that, it was on to the mundane business of historic preservation restrictions, handicapped parking spots, grant funding for consultants and program assistants as well as "teens and tweens" initiatives, carpet samples, and how to treat "rudeness" in the revision of the Personnel Handbook.

The political and emotional temperature in the room rose again when it came to the discussion of trustee Gray's desire to remain on the Board while on a Rotary Scholarship to Egypt, where she plans to study sharia (Carol is law professor and a well-known local attorney).  Ms. Gray maintains that "remote participation" in government meetings, an option currently under consideration by the Attorney General, could allow her to fulfill all her duties via e-mail, Skype and other modern technologies.  Mr. Hoffmann argued that this would be a violation of the spirit of the law, which he and some others see as in intended to address the problem of the occasional absence rather than the extended leave.  How would people react if someone on Select Board were to be absent for ten months? he asked, citing the American Library Association Code of Ethics:
Assume your full responsibility as a board member. If you are unable to attend meetings regularly and complete work delegated to you, resign so that an active member can be appointed.
“I’d be saying this no matter what else is going on,” he assured her, adding,"I’m angry that I’m being asked to excuse you for a third of your term."

Chair Pat Holland: “Let’s try to be calm, be civil about it."

Carol Gray, clearly acting hurt, asked for "civility," pleading, this “really damages the image of the library.”  The issue, she said, involved her ability to get the work done, not her physical presence.  Nobody can “force me to give up my seat,” she defiantly insisted, especially “considering I’m already putting in forty hours per week."

Trustee Emily Lewis affirmed, "I think Carol is right in commending herself to us. She has done a huge amount of work—and good work—in many areas.”
from left to right:  trustee Chris Hoffmann, Director Bonnie Isman, trustee Kathleen Wang
Director Bonnie Isman, attempting to mediate, said, “I always like to take a broader view,” explaining that one had to consider all possibilities and the role of precedent. The trustees would need to consider how they would in practice function as a 5- rather than 6-member board. She cited an example from the past in which a trustee was elected but never actually showed up for meetings. Fortunately, that was "the opposite" of the situation presented here, other trustees observed. Trustee Gray and her supporters were certain that the Attorney General would supply the desired answer quickly, whereas the skeptics suspected it might take as long as six months.

With that whimper rather than a bang, the meeting concluded.

The main news this week was that the meeting at which the evaluation of Director Bonnie Isman was to be presented had to be postponed from Tuesday until tomorrow due to an error in posting under the revised Open Meeting Law.  In the meantime,the Trustee Evaluation Committee sent off its long-awaited response to trustee Chris Hoffmann's detailed charges.  This week's Bulletin hasn't gone online yet, and I'll put up a link when it does, but the text of the document was already available for scrutiny on Larry Kelley's blog.


A Town Meeting member who took the trouble to peruse (check the real meaning of the term) the minutes of the Jones Trustees came to the conclusion that the Evaluation Committee had, between January 4 and July 16, devoted 112 hours and 5 minutes to the review of Director Bonnie Isman.

Someone said to me, sarcastically,  "I guess that's still fewer hours than the Select Board meets. In a whole year."

Actually, the answer is: no.  Under the leadership of Chair Stephanie O'Keeffe, the Select Board has, thankfully, gone to meeting only twice a month rather than weekly except during Town Meeting season.  I haven't done a precise calculation (life is too busy and too short), but the Select Board met 27 times from the beginning of May 2009 to May 2010.  Assume that each session ran for the typical 3 or 4 hours (though those during Town Meeting last only an hour at most), and you end up with 81-108 hours.  And, looking over the agenda of our most recent meeting, this past Monday, I see that we dealt with 11 rubrics or (in practice) 33 separate items between 6:30 and 10:30 that evening.  Among our ongoing tasks this summer is the annual evaluation of the Town Manager, whose performance goals were recently listed in the newspaper.

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