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Library morale sinking, board told
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2011, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

For the second consecutive public meeting, Salt Lake City Public Library Director Beth Elder was assailed by employees, who argued her methods are tyrannical, managers are "miserable" and that morale is plummeting.

"That might be the most poisonous thing we're seeing," 15-year associate librarian Mike Nordenstrom told a rapt Library Board on Thursday in a Main Library conference room that echoed with applause and hoots after each successive speaker.

"Why doesn't the board investigate reports of intimidation and retaliation?" asked Candy Markle, a library assistant at the Sprague branch. "Given the lack of employee confidence in Ms. Elder, as well as the current public-relations crisis over her decisions, how is the board going to successfully sell the public on a tax increase this year for the new branches? Has she been a successful leader? Has the reputation of the library improved under her supervision?"

Board members sat mostly silent during the onslaught, while Elder fidgeted in her chair. Multiple speakers also rattled off a list of longtime employees who recently retired or resigned from the public resource hub that won the 2006 Library of the Year award.

"What's going on?" asked Salt Lake City resident Brett Johnson, arguing the turnover takes a toll on productivity and the public pocketbook. "The taxpayers cannot afford to allow this to continue."

Elder never directly engaged her accusers, instead delivering budget and future branch location updates.

"Beth continues to remain committed to solving issues and the only way to advance the library and serve the community well is to have the board, the library leadership and the staff working in concert," said library spokeswoman Julianne Hancock. "The plans that were proposed to the board today as well as the preliminary 2011 and 2012 budget reflect exactly that."

Dissension stems from a January staff shuffle – part of Elder's new "strategic plan" – where veteran employees were forced to resign then reapply for their positions. Some retired, others were transferred to new branches, and new faces were added in key roles. Elder insists the move better aligns individual talents to jobs, though scores of employees say it has bred confusion and fear over job security.

Since the controversy erupted late last year, staffers cast a vote of no confidence in Elder and one board member quit in protest.

Mayor Ralph Becker and the City Council passed a joint resolution supporting Elder and the board earlier this year. Becker's spokesman reiterated the mayor's support for the board Thursday. Next month, the board must vote on whether to renew Elder's contract.

"It cannot go on another year," associate librarian Chlarson Seeley said about Elder's tenure. "We're all afraid. We're all terrified. I filed a grievance and they shelved it."

"It's not just that we have a few people who are unhappy," Nordenstrom added. "What we are faced with now as an organization may take years to recover from."

During last month's board meeting, three employees – for the first time – openly criticized the director and her direction. One, children's section librarian Paul Musser, said he was since asked to "take ownership" of his critical comments by one of Elder's deputies. "I was strongly cautioned by a member of the executive leadership team that if I spoke up again at a board meeting, I would be jeopardizing my job," Musser said in an interview Thursday.

Librarian Sean Tibbitts called the inability to address the problems "shameful," while another 15-year veteran said the restructuring was done "in a very hostile, very punitive way."

"People whose courage I admire are afraid to speak," librarian Josh Hanagarne told the board. "It means something. I implore you to ask them."

Before the crowd dispersed, several people pressed the board to increase its transparency, including updating meeting minutes more quickly and posting comments like Thursdays on their website.

"I would encourage you not to continue in covering this material up," said capital resident Clotilde Houchon. "These comments are public information. You may not keep that quiet."

In response, board president Hugh Gillilan – a former ACLU chapter head – said the board will take it under consideration.

"I will not guarantee that at this point."

djensen@sltrib.com

Marmalade site recommended

A library steering committee has selected the city's vacant redevelopment parcel at 270 W. 500 North as their recommended site for a planned Marmalade branch. A final decision will be made later this year.

Staff unrest • Employees say internal strife "may take years to recover from."
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