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Salt Lake City Library could lose a key funding ally

Published October 21, 2011 9:56 am

Salt Lake City • Friends of the Library threatens to yank support after latest uproar.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2011, and information in the article may be outdated.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.

Chaotic conditions and cratering morale at the Salt Lake City Library may next take their toll on patron services and public programs.

The influential Friends of the Library — an all-volunteer nonprofit that has raised $1 million for the library during the past decade — is threatening to pull its funding over continuing library controversies.

This "unprecedented" step may be necessary, the community group warned the Library Board on Thursday, because "for the first time in our [51-year] history, we are in crisis."

"Today, the library is not the same as the one we agreed to support," reads a letter from the Friends board and distributed to embattled Library Director Beth Elder along with the board.

"We are uneasy and leery of turning over our money earned from volunteer time to whoever happens to be in the finance department that day," the letter says. "The Friends are spending as much time training and explaining our procedures to new staff as we are at raising the money. Our faith and trust are shattered."

The missive came at the end of the board's meeting, which also saw some residents vent, one calling for Elder's ouster and another blasting the board.

"You have neglected your duties," said Amos Musser, noting his librarian son has been "muzzled." "You are in the pocket of the librarian, of the director. To my way of thinking, that's just a tad bass-ackwards."

The comment drew applause then a quick rebuke by board President Kevin Werner, who threatened to adjourn the meeting.

There were other outbursts — "they are terrified," someone yelled about the library staff — and groans when board members sounded dismissive of the dissent.

Walking briskly out of the Anderson-Foothill branch afterward, Elder said she had not yet read the Friends letter. "They are an incredibly important and valuable group of advocates for the library," she told The Salt Lake Tribune. "And I look forward to working with them in the future."

A second, blistering letter was also sent to the board Thursday, this one from Elder's former assistant director.

"The truth is I have never worked for someone who has such disdain for her staff, such a volatile and irrational temper, such fear and paranoia, and who has such poor leadership and organizational skills," wrote Colleen McLaughlin, who retired 10 months ago "because I could no longer support Beth and the direction in which she was taking the library."

McLaughlin alluded to news reports about library managers restricting opinion on all-staff email and policing personal social-media accounts, calling it "beyond appalling."

She said high-priced consultants have solved nothing and made matters worse. And she blamed the board for being "fully complicit" in tarnishing the library's reputation and placing Elder's career "in ruins."

"If she does not do the honorable thing by stepping down," McLaughlin wrote, "I implore you to ask for her resignation."

City Councilman Luke Garrott said the perceived gag on staff communications "smacks of resentment and overreach."

"Why would we be willing as a community and as City Hall to thoroughly change with a wrecking ball the culture at the library for the sake of a single director?" he asked in an interview. "This was an award-winning library. By whose account was it broken and needed to be fixed? It sure didn't seem broken. And I'm mystified by the support the director still has at City Hall."

Garrott didn't stop there. "I suspect when Beth goes, if Beth goes, the new director will have the same agenda. I wouldn't be surprised if the agenda is coming, at least in part, from City Hall. That's not just the mayor; that's the City Council Office."

Mayor Ralph Becker's spokesman, Art Raymond, said Garrott has that wrong, noting that the mayor and council, by statute, oversee the library's budget and appoint its board members.

"Management and personnel policy issues are mandated by the board," Raymond said, "without input by the mayor or City Council."

Earlier in the meeting, resident Cori Redstone said library employees feel they are under attack "every day."

"I'm here to request the board take another look at the director and consider removing her," she said. "It's a hostile work environment. We have hundreds of miserable employees and one director. Clearly, there was a mistake in hiring her."

Elder didn't directly address the crowd of about 50 people, which included employees and ACLU representatives. But regarding a new employee survey that shows institutional pride in the library but plummeting faith in the management's honesty and openness, Elder suggested the angst is related to changes staffers don't yet understand.

"We are moving the library in a new direction," she said. "The library is moving toward ... emphasizing areas of programming, outreach, technology ... and being a place where the community comes together. It's a different image of the library than the image of the library of the past, which was about circulating materials."

Elder downplayed the exodus of longtime employees during her four-year tenure. "Sometimes people don't see their present job in the future library," she said in response to a board question about staff unrest.

The Friends letter was more direct.

"Regardless of the spin put on these resignations, this is not normal attrition," it reads. "Before this administration, there was a very low rate of turnover. We have watched lives disrupted, careers ruined and health concerns boom. The library did not win the [2006] Library of the Year award for its wonderful buildings."

Friends President Jeannine Marlowe told the board the library needs leadership that "can unite, not divide."

"We need the blaming of the staff and others for the problems at the library to end," she said. "We can wait no longer. We are asking the current leadership of this library to take responsibility for this disaster and do whatever is necessary to reverse the continuing disaffection at the library."

Added past Friends President Suzy Dailey: "It is in your best interest to consider the consequences of maintaining the status quo."

djensen@sltrib.com

Elder vows to address staff concerns

Salt Lake City Library Director Beth Elder on Thursday told her board and a roomful of critics — many of them employees — that any staff concerns would be given "the highest priority."

But, she added, "it is extremely difficult to resolve employee concerns if they do not use internal channels." They include direct library supervisors, the employees group, and the library's Executive Leadership Team.

Board President Kevin Werner also released a statement reaffirming the library's commitment to free speech and transparency. He said a new all-staff email guideline that restricts opinion and concerns is "similar to many other public institutions" and preserves "patron privacy." The library has a responsibility to taxpayers, Werner continued, to ensure internal communications systems "are used for appropriate organizational purposes."

Ranae Pierce, a 45-year librarian, was placed on administrative leave for challenging the email policy and wondered aloud Thursday, "Have I been fired?"

"We'll take that under advisement," Werner told her.

Board member Elizabeth Gupta noted "there hasn't been one grievance filed" during the library's two-year tumult.

But board member Mark Alvarez countered that employees circumvent internal channels because they don't deem them safe. "This is a toxic environment we are operating in," he said.

Past Friends of the Library President Suzy Dailey told Elder and the board it is not reasonable to expect staffers to file grievances, knowing those reports would end up on Elder's desk.

Derek P. Jensen