Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Immaterial? Inconceivable!!

Maybe-current Executive Director Deb Lissak, Maybe-interim Executive Director Kathy Wicks, and Trustee Mel Farrel were not in attendance last night. Lissak's attorney was nowhere in evidence. The climate in the packed Sattherthewaite conference room verged into the intemperate zone as tempers ran hot, as did the temperature.

Chris Scherer opened the meeting by advising us that public comment would be limited as a closed session would commence at 7pm in order for the Board to have a phone conference with their attorney "on personnel." He was clearly agitated and emphatic in advising the assembled that the Board had no announcements for us. We were informed that after the closed session we could expect no further announcements. We were advised to keep our comments brief.

Mark Netter injected a note of calm following these opening remarks with his statement here:

After closed session the Board did have one announcement - they will convene a special meeting on September 4, at 7 p.m. in the UFL auditorium.

First the hopeful signs:

The meeting was livestreamed and is archived here:

Yesterday and today news about #bookgate reappeared on the radio (WILL) with small soundbites sprinkled liberally throughout the programming. Here is one such piece:

The News Gazette published a credible overview here:

I appreciate the extremity of the situation which the Board of Trustees now faces and I am sympathetic about the pressures they face. It would seem that they can't answer many of our questions because concerns about of legal liability, and because much remains unresolved. We verified the following:

  1. There is no separation agreement.
  2. Lissak has not resigned.
  3. Lissak still reports to work and it is unclear who is in charge of the library on a day to day basis and to whom staff should be reporting (according to statements made in the WILL piece above). 
  4. Negotiations are ongoing in an attempt to seek a separation agreement with Lissak.
  5. Last night seems to have been the Board's first opportunity to consult with an attorney.

Last night's meeting gave us a new word for our vocabulary: Immaterial. Chris Scherer, Board President, who appeared increasingly frustrated and angry as the evening unfolded repeatedly used this term to dismiss many of our questions.

Al Kagan led the public comment with observations about the 'two popes' problem facing the library as indicated by the WILL transcript of Scherer's comments which indicate that there are two acting directors (Lissak and Wicks). He stated that the director continues to demonstrate her incompetence by not removing herself from leadership of the library in a dignified way, and is prolonging harm to the library. He urged the Board to fire her due to her gross incompetence.

Carol Tilley brought copies of the Library Journal article here:  She advised the trustees that the events at UFL are being watched by people in the US and Internationally as this is an issue affecting libraries everywhere.

JP Goguen thanked the trustees for opening up public comment. He noted that Lissak was given an opportunity for a graceful honorable exit, and expressed his appreciation for the upcoming consultation with an attorney. He addressed the civil service guidelines for termination as the tool that would allow them to be aggressive in pursuing her termination.

A dispute about Lissak's actual employment classification ensued as Scherer indicated that she is a civil service employee, and Becky Brown stated emphatically that she is not. Lissak is an exempt class employee of the City of Urbana, and she has a current contract for employment.

Kate McDowell then testified by stating her appreciation for the ability to comment and addressed the trustees requests for trust and faith "It is faith that brings us here, what we say may not indicate full trust. That is our job - we are asking you to represent us. I know we may not all agree. We show up because we care and because we have faith. When we speak please do not address our comments as silly." She asked for the trustees to foster respectful dialogue, and began to ask a series of questions which were interrupted by Scherer.

She asked if a paid separation agreement has been reached, if the director has resigned, who is the library director, what is the legal authority that makes this person director? Where is this contract? Why are we pursuing separation and not termination? What is the authority that grants the ability to pay two directors at once?

McDowell then suggested that the trustees consider more openness by soliciting public input on the appointment of and terms of the contract for the next director. She asked for clear answers in this very confusing situation. After being interrupted several times near the conclusion of her comments Scherer told her she was done talking and dismissed her from the podium.

Aimee Rickman stated her outrage about the inaction of the Board, how appalled she is by the squandering of public funds and by the fact that the pillaging of the library has not prompted more decisive action on the part of the trustees, despite repeated calls for action. She addressed the fact that the contract with Lissak was renewed - at which point she was interrupted by Scherer - who advised her that she did not know what she was talking about. Rickman countered by asking the Board to help us understand what is going on. At this point the trustees seemed to indicate that a contract was in place prior to their awareness of the issues at the library.

Rickman then stated her frustration about the lack of willingness to protect library workers by addressing the bullying. She asked the trustees what they were doing to protect staff, and highlighted the 'no time' / 'needing more time' disconnect. Recent events of the library unfolded quickly under the oversight of the Board. Now the Trustees continue to state that there is insufficient time to conduct a SWOT analysis, for example, prior to state reporting requirements. The Board continues to ask the public for more time, and yet the urgency of the situation intensifies in direct proportion to the lack of clear communication from the Board. Rickman then renewed her questions about how many books were removed.

In response - Scott Bennett, Trustee, advised us that the trustees are trying to proceed mindfully and not incur any further liability for the library. There is no separation agreement. There is an existing contract which must be honored.

We were advised by Chris Scherer that questions about the number of books that came back are immaterial. That the number of books that were sent out is immaterial. This speaker was advised her time for speaking was over.

Carol Tilley interjected that the trustees interactions by this point in the meeting were now contrary to the spirit of respect and open dialogue the group had repeatedly requested. Indeed, The plea for respect that Kate McDowell presented earlier seemed to create an equal yet decidedly opposite reaction.

Ashley Price took the podium next and asked about transparency for the strategic plan, and stated her concerns about the fact that most of the information was coming from rumors as no official communication was forthcoming from the board about the many extant questions the public continues to restate from meeting to meeting.

Chris Scherer stated emphatically that 'Rumors are a problem.'

Stuart Levy, speaking on behalf of an Urbana resident asked about the status of the search for a new director particularly with respect to this now unsettled situations with two acting directors. He asked for a public resolution as expeditiously as possible.

After roll call the Trustees convened in closed session.

This meeting unsettled everyone and left Board members and the public alike disappointed and frustrated. The complexity of the situation is now far more clear, as the path to resolution leads into a briar and bramble filled terrain. The concerns the public continues to state are not irrelevant, not unimportant, in other words not - as Scherer deemed them IMMATERIAL.

What we have here is a failure to communicate. I add one further plea to the trustees. We know there is much you can not tell us. Please tell us what you can and clearly define what you can't. If we have things wrong, please tell us. The rumors that have upset you will only grow in this vacuum.

We sincerely hope that Scherer's statement about the problematic nature of rumors does not bode ill for current employees who still have no protection in this rapidly evolving situation. We appreciate and respect your continuing efforts under unimaginably difficult circumstances. We look forward to a more respectful and open dialogue with you.

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