By Frances Dinkelspiel and Natalie Orenstein
In an unprecedented move, the Berkeley City Council voted Tuesday night to remove two long-standing members of the Board of Library Trustees (BOLT), the first time in the board’s 122-year history that members have been removed.
The City Council voted 6-2-1 to remove board president Julie Holcomb from the post she has held for six years and 5-3-1 to remove vice president Jim Novosel, who has served the same amount of time. They both had two years left in their terms.
Mayor Jesse Arreguín and council members Kriss Worthington, Ben Bartlett, Cheryl Davila and Kate Harrison voted to remove Holcomb and Novosel; Susan Wengraf and Lori Droste voted no, and Hahn, who also sits on the BOLT, abstained. Linda Maio voted against removing Novosel, whom she said she had known a long time. She voted in favor of removing Holcomb.
Council then appointed former Rent Board Commissioner Judy Hunt to fill the vacancy created when Winston Burton retired March 23. Diane Davenport, who once headed the West Branch of the library, and was on Berkeley library staff for 25 years, was also appointed. She will serve two years. They will join Hahn and Abigail Franklin, whose term expires in January. There is still one vacancy on the board.
Worthington was the force behind removing Novosel and Holcomb. He said the board had suffered from a lack of leadership; allowed retaliatory actions to happen against library workers who spoke out against book-weeding and other policies; and failed to place a new sign honoring Tarea Hall Pittman on the South Branch building in a timely manner. (See Berkeleyside’s March 2 story for full details.)
“What choice do we have?” said Worthington. “We’ve lobbied board members and that didn’t work. We can’t allow the public or librarians to suffer for another year.”
Bartlett, who was ruled out of order by Holcomb earlier this year when he turned up at a BOLT meeting after public comment was closed and proceeded to speak anyway, said: “I’ve never in my life seen a board this disrespectful and exhibit this much vitriol to the people.”
Harrison said: “This is not about a difference in opinion. This is about a failed management approach to employee relations that has led to a hostile and unhealthy workplace.”
Wengraf raised concerns that Worthington’s motion would have serious consequences. The BOLT has been around since 1895 and is a quasi-independent board. It nominates its own members, who are then approved by the City Council. This is the first time the Council has ever removed sitting members, said Wengraf.
“I realize I’m in the minority on the dais but my comments come from a real place of concern,” said Wengraf. “There’s no precedent in the history of Berkeley for this happening… What you are going to do tonight is create an atmosphere of intimidation — exactly what the librarians are talking about tonight. Does this mean if you are on the BOLT and you don’t agree with the council you can be subjected to being removed? … I kind of see this process as a witch hunt. ”
About 10 community members spoke in favor of removing Novosel and Holcomb.
Andrea Mullarkey, a teen librarian and SEIU Local 1021 shop steward, said she was pleased with the council’s actions. Mullarkey was part of a group of vocal library staff that has repeatedly addressed the library board in meetings and has led protests outside the library to convey concern that the board was unresponsive.
“I am excited for this fresh start for the library community,” Mullarkey wrote in an email. “In the past, we have had a culture of disengagement and an unwillingness to listen that started right at the top with the leadership of the Board of Library Trustees. With the placement of new trustees, one a professional librarian who understands how libraries work, I foresee a future where the library is once again led by people who really want to do this job and who come prepared to serve.”
Novosel told Berkeleyside previously that he thought his and Holcomb’s ouster was politically motivated. Both of them supported former City Councilman Laurie Capitelli for mayor and in his council district elections against Hahn.
Holcomb said Wednesday that she agrees with that analysis. She said Arreguín, Hahn and Bartlett had been maneuvering to oust her.
“I have known for months that they planned to exact their revenge in this way,” said Holcomb, who added she was not “personally wounded,” by what happened.
Novosel pointed out Tuesday that neither he nor Holcomb had done anything illegal. He suggested that council allow the board to convene a community committee to examine the issues rather than break up the board.
“We have broken no law, performed no malfeasance, nor done anything to deserve such punishment,” Novosel told the council.
His plea did not work as the majority of the council had already made up their minds before the meeting. The board of the Berkeley Public Library Foundation had written a letter to council expressing its opposition to the move to remove two trustees.
After Novosel and Holcomb were deposed, Hahn introduced a motion to appoint Davenport to the library board. Droste then introduced a substitute motion, which Wengraf seconded, that would nominate Hunt, whom the BOLT had previously nominated to replace Burton, and Davenport.
“I really want to figure out how to have some sort of kumbaya moment tonight and figure out a way to extend an olive branch and please the multiple parties and stakeholders,” said Droste.
Worthington had said a few weeks earlier that he could not support Hunt’s nomination because she was a politician. Hunt successfully ran for Rent Board in 2012, opposing a slate that included Alejandro Soto-Vigil, who once worked for Worthington and now works for Arreguín. (Hunt was defeated for re-election in 2016.) Hahn had abstained from voting for Hunt when her nomination came before the board and had tried, unsuccessfully, to nominate Davenport. These allegiances played out in the council vote Tuesday night.
The vote to appoint Hunt and Davenport was approved 5-3-1. Maio, Bartlett, Harrison, Wengraf and Droste voted yes. Arreguín, Worthington and Hahn voted no. Davila abstained.
Holcomb said Hunt was an excellent candidate. The board also wanted to nominate her because Burton, an African-American, was retiring and the board needs diversity. Hunt is African-American.
“I am elated at the leadership shown by Lori Droste to derail Sophie Hahn’s tenacious campaign against Judy Hunt,” she said.
Hahn said she did not conduct a “campaign” against Hunt. She was just so impressed by Davenport’s qualifications that she pushed hard to nominate her to the board.
“It was clear to me that she (Davenport) was exceptional and uniquely positioned to put the library back on a course of success and rebuilding morale and flourishing…. It was not about Judy Hunt. It was about Diane Davenport.”
Worthington’s measure to appoint Davenport and Jeff Chang, a middle school librarian, did not come up for a vote. Worthington said Chang was at the back of the council chambers ready to answer questions. He can be considered for the remaining vacancy or for the spot that opens up when Franklin steps down, said Worthington.
Many critics of Worthington’s measure expressed concern that it would drive away Heidi Dolamore, who took over as library director in September after a long period of turmoil and uncertainty. Two of the last three library directors have left because of severe criticism.
Worthington addressed this concern in a hand-written amendment that recognized the “excellence” of Dolamore and deputy librarian Elliot Warren. He also wrote, “we do not intend to set a precedent in escalating City Council involvement in day-to-day operations of the Berkeley Public Library.”
The library board had been scheduled to meet Wednesday. The meeting was canceled, however, prior to the council vote.
Editor’s note: This article was updated to include Hahn’s comments.