The Board of Library Trustees voted Wednesday to appoint Elliot Warren as acting director of the Berkeley Public Library, elevating him from the deputy director position. He will be paid $146, 232 a year. This follows the abrupt resignation of Director Heidi Dolamore last month, after less than one year in the job.
The board held off the search for a new permanent director, however, until it can hire an outside party to do a review of the issues that have been plaguing the library in the past few years.
BOLT Director Judy Hunt had proposed that the board do an organizational evaluation of the system. All the other directors agreed that they, the staff, and the community needed to better understand why the last two directors stayed less than a year each, why staff morale is low, and why, at times, the unions and the administration were at odds.
What wasn’t explicitly mentioned, but was referred to obliquely, is the political turmoil surrounding the board. Three of the five BOLT directors are new and two were brought on after the City Council forced out two former directors and ignored BOLT’s recommendation to install a community volunteer in a vacancy.
Hunt, who held up colorful erasers with phrases on them to bring some levity to the meeting, said that she was not looking for a financial audit, but an evaluation that looked at “every level of the library and how it can be improved.”
“We have to find a better way to function as an organization,” said Hunt.
In public comments at the beginning of the meeting, Rachel Anderson, the president of the Berkeley Public Library Foundation, an independent nonprofit that raises funds for library projects, had urged BOLT to bring in an outsider. The recent turmoil at BOLT and decision by the City Council to more actively intervene in library operations, which have long been independent, has been of deep concern to the foundation.
“For the past several years there has been no stable ongoing leadership,” Anderson told the board while pointing out that Berkeley residents pay $19 million in taxes annually to support library services. “The repeated failure to find and keep adequate leadership begs the question: ‘Why?’…. the library is not functioning effectively. We need to understand, first, why this is happening and then, what can be done to stabilize the organization.”
All of the BOLT members agreed.
“There are some systemic problems that have been here a long time that we have to address,” said Director Abigail Franklin, who has served on BOLT for eight years. “This is the driver to our future success. It is of paramount importance.”
Sophie Hahn, a City Councilwoman and BOLT member since December, said she had previously urged Dolamore to bring in an outside party with organizational management skills to look at the library’s operations and thinks it is still a good idea.
Warren will return to BOLT in the coming months with a plan on how to proceed.
BOLT also held a lengthy discussion about whether to immediately hire a search firm to find a new director. The consensus was, however, to slow down the process to minimize the changes the staff would have to go through. Since October 2014, there have been three directors – Donna Corbeil, Jeff Scott, and Dolamore – one acting director and one interim director. Even though Warren has been at the library only since February, he is a familiar face for the staff, BOLT members said. Keeping him in a leadership position would be reassuring for the staff, members said.
The last search for an executive director cost Berkeley $33,455, according to Matthai Chakko, a city spokesman. (The search for Scott cost $13,800.) There is a chance that, since Dolamore stayed for less than a year, the search firm owes Berkeley another search for free, said Hahn. The city is exploring the situation, she said.
When Scott resigned, BOLT appointed library employee Sarah Denton as acting director and then hired Beth Pollard, a former Berkeley interim deputy city manager, to serve. But the board thought repeating that pattern might also be too disruptive for staff, and decided to put off looking for an interim director. BOLT will give Warren a few months in a leadership position and then decide on next steps.
The unanimity of BOLT on many issues seemed to signal that the board could work together, even though it had been compiled under politically fraught circumstances. John Selawsky had even praised the board for working so well together during two closed sessions in August that ultimately led, somehow, to Dolamore’s resignation. (Neither BOLT nor Dolamore have said why she resigned.) A hint of the divide between those appointed by the City Council (including Hahn) and those who are not closely aligned with Mayor Jesse Arreguín did flare up over the election of a vice-president for BOLT.
Selawsky, whose appointment Arreguín pushed through, had previously been elected vice-president. But he failed to complete a mandatory video training within 60 days of his election so he automatically forfeited the position.
Consequently, BOLT had the election of a new vice-president as an agenda item. Franklin nominated Hunt, a former Rent Board commissioner who represented a more moderate slate that the one Arreguín has endorsed in the past. Her nomination died for lack of a second.
Hahn then nominated Selawsky and Davenport seconded the nomination. Franklin made a brief comment expressing concern that Selawsky had not completed the training. He was elected vice-president on a 3-to-2 vote. He, Hahn, and Davenport voted for his election while Franklin and Hunt voted against it.
After the meeting, Selawsky said he hadn’t watched the video he was required to watch because the time passed more quickly than he expected. However, he has now watched the training video, although he is not sure if that viewing will count since it came after the 60-day period. Selawsky, a former long-time School Board member who is also on the Rent Board and the Zoning Adjustments Board, had already seen that training video, according to Hahn. Selawsky said he will watch the video again if he has to.
Franklin’s term on BOLT ends Jan. 3, and the board is currently seeking applicants to replace her.
Dolamore was not at the meeting, even though her last day in Berkeley is Sept. 22. She was paid a $180,000 salary but will not receive any severance, according to July Cole, who was an associate human resource analyst for the library until this week. Cole is now working for the city.