The Saratoga Sun -

Library enters new chapter

 


“It’s your turn, Joyce,” Carbon County Library System Board (CCLSB) member Joanne Whitson told Joyce Menke. Minutes before, Menke had been elected CCLSB chair at a tear-filled 4.5 hour July 6 CCLSB meeting attended by nearly 40 members of the public. Hours later, CCLSB director Bobbie Morgan was told to hand in her keys. Two days after that, Whitson, who had previously served as CCLSB chair, resigned her position on the board.

The exit of Morgan and Whitson signaled a decisive defeat for a faction of the library board that had pushed back against budgetary cutbacks called for by the Carbon County Commissioners and could be read as the completion of a coup that began taking form in early spring. At that time, the library board was told by the commissioners to brace for steep reductions in funding, and over the course of a lengthy budgetary tug-of-war, internal divisions in the five-member board emerged then worsened.

Whitson and Morgan engaged in a sharp-elbowed public fight with the commissioners, saying the library had been unfairly singled out for cuts. The two said operating eight branch libraries with the resources the commissioners were offering was asking Morgan to do the impossible and raised the possibility of shuttering branch libraries to deal with the shortfall. Commissioner Sue Jones, in particular, said this outcome was unacceptable, and described the CCLSB as “not trying very hard” to adapt to the belt-tightening that had to come during tough times. Morgan, Whitson and Jones then repeatedly tangled with one another both in person and in statements to the media.

Meanwhile, then board members Joyce Menke and Tom Callison (now CCLSB chair and vice-chair, respectively) took a more conciliatory tack with Jones. In statements to the media and increasingly tense exchanges at board meetings, Menke and Callison disputed Morgan’s professional assessment of what the libraries need to operate. Whitson mostly backed Morgan up during these exchanges, while Gail Lorick and Julie Evans (whose terms on the CCLSB expired July 1) largely kept their heads down.

After each round of hostilities, the two camps issued statements that seemed aimed at lowering tension levels and making peace, but conflict kept arising. Staff resignations, which began rolling in during April, continued to pile up, eventually reaching their current count of ten, as tallied by Whitson.

Trouble came to a head at a June 20 meeting of the CCLSB. At that chaotic meeting, Commissioner Jones forcefully made her case for a “working budget” that left line items unspecified. Over objections from Morgan and Whitson as well as the libraries’ now resigned bookkeeper, April Martinez, Menke, Callison and Lorick voted in favor of the “budget as amended by Sue Jones.” In the immediate aftermath of their vote, the board could not say what number had been decided upon during the murky proceedings.

In the days following this decision, Morgan and Whitson aired their budgetary grievances on KTGA, and an emergency board meeting was called for June 24 by Menke, Callison and Lorick. Though she didn’t attend, Morgan announced her resignation effective July 18 at that meeting through a letter read by Whitson. Morgan had only been on the job since April, and she had been the first person with a masters in library science (MLS) to serve as executive director of the CCLSB in three years.

The July 6 CCLSB meeting was the first to include freshly-minted board members Cindy Bloomquist and Ellie Behrmann, and the atmosphere of their inaugural meeting was rife with tension.

Within ten minutes of starting the meeting, the board moved to go into an “executive session” closed to the public. Since there were so many people in the audience, the board members, along with Carbon County Attorney Ashley Davis, changed rooms instead of instructing the public to decamp, which is the normal procedure for executive sessions. Morgan was told to stay behind during this executive session.

Over the course of the 30 minutes that the CCLSB was huddling in executive session, the audience, which included at least half a dozen former library employees, became increasingly hostile and suspicious. Voice hitching with emotion, Carbon County Library Foundation member Mira Miller stood up and delivered an impassioned defense of Morgan during this time. In her impromptu speech, Miller said she was worried the board was going to dismiss Morgan after returning from executive session, and that she would stand up in civil protest of this decision if it came. Miller stressed that she was acting as a private citizen and not necessarily representing the foundation, but she urged others to join her.

Removal Procedures

While the CCLSB was out of the room, Miller asked attending Carbon County Commissioner Leo Chapman what is the best way to get the commissioners to consider removing CCLSB members. “This whole thing began with a lack of money: we still have a lack of money,” Chapman told the room. He said he had never removed a board member during his time as commissioner, and urged calm. Chapman reminded attendees that CCLSB members, though appointed by the commissioners, were unpaid volunteers with a tough job.

When the CCLSB returned from executive session, Miller and many other stood up to confront the board, but the only action taken at that time was to give Menke the authority to make personnel decisions. It would be almost three full hours before Menke announced to a substantially emptier room that Morgan was to turn in her keys. Morgan will be paid through July 18, the date she was to have resigned, so the action is not technically a termination.

Morgan and many former library employees were rankled by the significant delay in informing Morgan that her services were no longer wanted. “I believe Joyce Menke deliberately obfuscated the truth when pressed about her being in charge of personnel (after executive session ended) as she stated that it was to gather applications only,” Morgan wrote later. Morgan also had procedural problems with her dismissal, writing “I requested twice that if the executive session was to discuss me in any way, that that portion of the Executive Session be held in public.”

When her dismissal was announced close to 9 p.m., Morgan appeared furious. “It’s OK. I have $50,000 worth of grants that just walked out the door,” she said before leaving. Her supporters have frequently cited Morgan’s grant-writing acumen as a powerful asset for a cash-strapped library system.

Martinez–the former library bookkeeper–was also incensed by what she saw as mistreatment of Morgan. “You insulted a woman who’s done everything the board has asked for the past two months, and I think you just publicly insulted her. And Joyce (Menke), yet again, I’m offended,” Martinez said before making her own exit. Several other former library employees also left at this point.

Bloomquist emphasized that she was a new member serving on a new board, and she declined to offer any criticism of Morgan, saying she didn’t know her well enough. Bloomquist defended the decision to ask Morgan to leave before her resignation date though, saying “I couldn’t compartmentalize (all the negativity) myself. In most parts of the world (if) you resign, you’re done.” Bloomquist said the director’s departure was a way to move forward, and as angry as Morgan appeared in public statements, Bloomquist didn’t think the ex-director could make the best decisions for the library system’s future.

Outside the power dynamics at play in the meeting, the CCLSB addressed several changes in the board’s bylaws and operations. A vote was taken to reduce the public notice requirements for an emergency meeting of the CCLSB from seven days to three.

After much discussion, the board also voted to remove an MLS requirement for a new “acquisitions and resource manager” position. This will mean, in Whitson’s words “Other than our executive director, there are no librarians working at the library.”

Turning the page

Whitson announced that she had spoken with Wyoming State Librarian Jamie Markus, and he was working out various ways in which Cheyenne could help with the situation in Carbon County. Markus will be attending a July 18 meeting of the CCLSB, and says he knows of two people with MLS degrees interested in filling the interim executive director slot for up to a year. According to Whitson, Markus suggested a job description for the interim position that reads, in part, “their position would be to help the Carbon County Library System recover from the budget cut and extreme loss of staff.”

Recovering from the last three months of acrimony and dissension will take time as well, and different parties are approaching the project from different angles. Former employee Kendra Sisneros has started a petition to Carbon County Commissioners calling for the removal of Callison and Menke from the CCLSB.

“The incompetency, lack of ethics, and lack of support for the entire Carbon County Library System has created lack of trust with staff and the public,” part of Sisnero’s petition reads. After Callison raised his voice toward the end of the exhausting evening, one of the last employees still working at the Rawlins Library broke out in tears and had to leave the room to gather herself. Callison has been accused of denigrating library staff on multiple occasions.

Board Perspectives

Callison nevertheless said he was the one on the defensive, claiming, “I’ve been under attack for a month now for doing my job, and I’m tired of it.”

Menke, meanwhile, describes herself as a tenacious guardian of rural library patrons. “I was also fighting for all these little people in little towns, saying we need a library more than two or three hours (a week),” Menke said. It was partially Menke’s efforts that opened the doors of the previously closed Rawlins branch the afternoon of July 7. “(Keeping libraries open) is doable if we want it to be doable,” is Menke’s attitude.

Bloomquist presents herself as a bridge-builder eager to restore good relations with staff. As the evening wore on, she frequently asked the opinions of former employees and told them they would be welcomed back with open arms if they wanted to return. “I’m here for the patrons and the books and the kids. And I don’t like drama,” Bloomquist described her role on the board.

Trust is low and will take time to rebuild. “I see people (on the CCLSB) making decisions when, I’m sorry, they don’t have a clue what they’re talking about,” said attendee Rob Blair. A different man told the CCLSB “While you were in executive session, it became very apparent that there is very little trust in this board.”

Miller took a longer view. “At this point, I have no power to make any changes, so we’re moving forward,” she said. Miller was adamant about keeping standards in her beloved libraries high, though. “My other concern for the future is that open buildings do not constitute quality library service,” she said.

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