Opinion: Conversation and a community effort, not politics, is needed to correct the library’s travails

Jim Novosel, a member of the library board, wants to set politics aside and start a “healing process” by convening a task force to look at some of the library’s issues.

The public has heard of low morale among staff at the Library and the attempts to blame the situation on the Board of Library Trustees (BOLT). In this op-ed, I first wish to propose a route by which the anxiety among library staff members can be understood and solved, and second, to explain how the charges against the BOLT are exaggerated and have little basis.

The solution to deal with widespread anxiety among library staff members about working conditions is to create a committee of community and library members who will study and respond to it. I do not discount or belittle the widespread anxiety among library staff members. However, up till now, the proceedings of a confidential investigation have prevented the BOLT from responding to this issue. Now that it has concluded, we can move forward. The group’s composition should be composed of both members from our library and community. I foresee a composition of members from the BOLT, the administration, and the staff. The important issues to examine and solve include clarifying practices regarding collections and weeding, establishing circulation recording that ensures compliance with state law, ensuring experienced library staff expertise is fully utilized and developing good will among members of the work force.

Regarding the charges brought by City Councilman Kriss Worthington, the public is told that the BOLT has acted illegally and disrespectfully. Worthington proposes punishment that is both extreme and based on misinformation. He cites three reasons for ousting two current Board members, Julie Holcomb and myself and denying a seat for the BOLT’s new nominee, Judy Hunt. These reasons are 1) we delayed installation of a sign for the Pittman South Branch Library, 2) we have not dealt with a lengthy personnel investigation of staff and 3) we have conducted what he opines as irregular elections and a trustee nomination process. Unfortunately, he has never contacted me to discuss any of these issues or to explain why he proposes such severe, punitive action in response to the problems he perceives.

The first charge leveled against the BOLT is our delay at installing a sign on the South Branch Library that would honor and commemorate Tarea Hall Pittman. BOLT unanimously approved the new sign but its installation was thwarted by an appraisal from the city planning director and the city attorney. The sign idea was developed with community members and two BOLT trustees, myself and Winston Burton. We then received approval from the City’s Design Review Secretary with the proviso that it had to be designated a “commemoration” rather than a sign. Designating it as such, we proceeded to have it drawn by an architect. Later last year, both the City’s planning director and city attorney questioned its conformance to the City’s sign ordinance. They determined that it was a sign and as such, illegal in a residential district. Signs are severely limited in residential districts in which the Branch is located. Once the “commemoration” was deemed a sign, it was deemed illegal.

The recent good news about the sign’s installation is that the BOLT is requesting the City Council to revise the sign ordinance. We have directed our new Trustee, City Councilwoman Sophie Hahn, to work with the City’s planning department and the city attorney and devise a solution. At the March 28th Council meeting, a revision to the sign ordinance will be presented for approval. Once revised, we can proceed with its fabrication. I will be at the Council meeting to support the ordinance’s revision. It is important that the South Branch as a public institution, now graced with the name of Tarea Hall Pittman, have a wonderful sign.

The second charge leveled against the BOLT concerns our inaction on library staff and operation matters especially regarding a personnel investigation. Several current and retired library staff members have desired that the BOLT become involved in the day to day operations and the investigation. They point to the City Charter which states that the BOLT has the power to hire and fire, fix salaries, purchase books, etc., in short, to perform the day to day work of operating the Library. However, over the years, many Memorandums of Understanding (MOUs) have been established between the City and the unions in order to protect worker rights. While library staff has wanted us to “hire and fire” managers with whom they are dissatisfied, we would be stepping into a conflicting situation involving three different union groups, personality clashes, worker evaluations and supervisory responsibilities. Council members, even Worthington, are likewise limited in their ability to intervene in similar investigations being conducted in City departments.

The third charge against BOLT is regarding the Board’s election process opined as having improper rule changes. This charge is leveled both at our officers’ election and the selection of a new Trustee. Regarding the election process, there were deadlines that we thought had to be addressed and absences that hindered an efficient process. However, the result would have been the same as the majority of Trustees, except for one, supported the outcome. Nothing we did rises to the level of malfeasance or illegally.

The charge is also leveled at the selection of a new Trustee. The selection was to fill Winston Burton’s seat, our only African-American trustee, who was termed out after eight years of dedicated service. Our process interviewed 10 applicants. Each candidate spoke to us about their qualifications in a publicly held interview. They were all wonderful people and I wish that we had 10 seats to fill. We selected Judy Hunt who spoke most eloquently about the importance of the library in the community for minority groups as well as of the importance of respect and collegiality among board members. She mentioned being inspired by Tarea Hall Pittman as a child listening to her radio broadcasts. Of all the candidates, four of the five trustees enthusiastically nominated her and the audience present applauded our selection. The majority felt strongly that Winston’s seat should go to an African-American, yet she clearly received the nomination on the merits of her presentation. The proceedings were almost tarnished by Trustee Hahn who misinterpreted elements of Ms. Hunt’s presentation. Ms. Hunt responded with a graceful and clarifying explanation of her remarks.

I now want to talk in more detail about solving several of the library’s systemic and morale problems. First, let me praise the new director, Heidi Dolamore. She brings an enthusiasm and fervor for the value and sacredness of the library in our community. This dedication is crucial to leading and solving any of the library problems identified. Her professionalism offers us the needed fresh start and chance at resolving long-standing morale problems. Please remember that for almost 1 1/2 years we have had no permanent director or deputy director to perform the following;

  • no one to articulate the Library’s mission to the staff and public;
  • no staff evaluations by which staff can understand their performance and growth;
  • no employee survey by which to comprehensively understand staff attitudes;
  • no collaboration meetings of Friends, Foundation, BOLT, and administration;
  • no convening of a joint labor-management committee.

These are elements of a well-functioning library that have been lacking and would continue to be lacking without a strong independent director.

As I said at the beginning, I believe that only now after the personnel investigation has concluded, can we begin a healing process. The investigation has brought to light information about the inner workings of the Library that will give us the means for corrective action. My proposal is that a committee be formed to review the procedures of our library with an emphasis on the collections and weeding policies and practices. The group’s composition should be composed of both members from our library community and possibly professional librarians. I foresee a composition of two members each from the BOLT, the administration, and the staff. Possibly, we include former library staff and administrators or other professional library people. There should be several important goals such as the clarification of practices regarding collections and weeding, the establishment of circulation records that ensures compliance with state law, ensuring that experienced library staff expertise is fully utilized and developing good will among members of the work force.

I acknowledge that politics may prevail in the coming weeks. The current trustees may be ousted and their positions given to the Council’s political supporters. If this occurs, I will be saddened not for my own position on BOLT, but for the Library and its independence. I hope that I have shown that the current trustees have performed no misconduct or wrongdoing to deserve their dismissal. The Council’s proposed ousting resolution has been rewritten three times and may continue to evolve. I hope that calmer minds prevail for the benefit of our great library and to protect it from undue influence by politics. I am a Library Trustee because I recognize the immense importance of our library to our community. It embodies our country’s most democratic ideals in providing free information, knowledge and community space to the entire public. It fills me with awe that such an institution exists and that it is so fully championed in Berkeley by its citizenry. No matter what happens, I will remain involved with the Library.

Jim Novosel is an architect who is serving his second term as a member of the BOLT.