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Salt Lake City library's embattled director resigns

Published October 29, 2011 8:45 am

Beth Elder says "being a lightning rod of controversy" has detracted from the library's numerous accomplishments." Reactions from her resignation range from a "sad day for everybody" to "I'm delighted."
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2011, and information in the article may be outdated.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.

Saying it was time to remove herself from the "hot seat," Beth Elder resigned Friday as director of Salt Lake City's award-winning library system.

Her immediate resignation was accepted by the Library Board, which had called a special meeting to discuss the director.

Assistant Library Director Debbie Ehrman was named acting director. She will serve for a number of weeks until a transitional director is appointed. That person then will serve six months to a year while the board conducts a national search for a new director.

The embattled Elder has been under fire from library employees, former library executives and the volunteer fundraising group Friends of the Library.

"Being a lightning rod of controversy has detracted from the library's numerous accomplishments during the 3½ years I have headed it," Elder told the board. "As a result, I can no longer effectively do my job of promoting and administering the Salt Lake City Public Library."

Stepping down immediately, she said, will allow the community to "focus on all that this library has become."

For severance, Elder, whose contract was due to end in April, will receive six months' pay with benefits as well as a $25,000 lump-sum payment.

The executive council of the Library Employees Organization, which represents more than 250 librarians and staffers, backed the board for making "the right decision" Friday.

"We look, forward to getting back to the important work of the library," the council's statement said. "We also want to thank Beth Elder for her many years of service."

Activity across floors of the Main Library carried on as usual Friday, while librarians read about Elder's resignation at their desks. Most were somber, though one librarian acknowledged "muted" celebration.

"I'm delighted," said librarian Gail McCulloch. "I want us to move on, and I want people to be able to do their jobs, and that has been hindered by this drama. I've been here for 15 years and I love the library. I just want us to work."

Friends President Jeannine Marlowe called Friday a "sad day for everybody."

"It's been too long a time, and it's been such a drain," she said. "There's no happy end to it."

Marlowe pledged her group's backing in rebuilding the library. Her volunteer organization, which raised about $1 million for the library during the past decade, recently threatened to withhold its funding support unless the turmoil ended.

Marlowe also lauded Elder as a person with "a lot of talent and a lot of skills."

"Hopefully," Marlowe said, "she will find a position and a place where she really fits in."

Art Raymond, Mayor Ralph Becker's spokesman, released a statement on the resignation late Friday.

"Mayor Becker recognizes that anyone who loses their job under turbulent circumstances suffers for the experience and he wishes all the best for Beth as she transitions to her next pursuits. The Mayor has never wavered from his support of the library board and stands behind their actions of today. The Salt Lake City Public Library System is an outstanding institution and it is Mayor Becker's sincere hope that this change marks positive, forward momentum toward resolving outstanding issues and keeping the library on a track that continues to embrace innovation, growth and service to our community," the statement reads.

After accepting Elder's resignation, the Library Board went further. It adopted a motion to greenlight a city-conducted performance audit to evaluate the library's policies and procedures. In addition, the library employee handbook — the subject of much staff angst — has been temporarily suspended in favor of the city's handbook.

The board also created a committee to build connections outside the library that will advise the transitional director. "We need to embrace the community," board member Elizabeth Gupta said, "and ask them as we move forward to help us."

Board President Kevin Werner praised Elder as "one of the most innovative thinkers in the library world today." He lauded her role in shaping the library's strategic plan, for bringing "new levels of fiscal accountability and transparency" and for overseeing the launch of two branches planned in the Glendale and Marmalade neighborhoods.

"Unfortunately, Beth's tenure was, at times, undermined both from within and outside of the library," Werner said. "In particular, I am saddened by the sometimes-unfair friction she has faced by some on this board."

In a separate interview, Werner stressed the board is comprised of all volunteers who love libraries, not political and personal infighting. "It's been an honor and a privilege to serve," he said, "but it's also been more than I've signed up for."

Elder, who replaced a well-respected Nancy Tessman in 2008, made a series of bold — and often criticized — moves during her stint. She overhauled the strategic plan with a focus on being more technologically nimble and relevant outside library walls. She also oversaw a management shake-up that prompted the departure of veteran librarians. And employees insisted her "top-down" management style destroyed morale.

Most recently, an attempt to forbid opinion and criticism in all-staff email galled a staff committed to freedom of expression.

Elder's backers argue the push-back was an orchestrated "campaign" by disgruntled employees — former and current. And they note no formal complaint nor grievance was filed.

Employees counter they never trusted the grievance system as directed by Elder.

"It was the right action," librarian Sean Tibbitts said about the resignation. "I think it was long overdue."

Library spokeswoman Julianne Hancock insisted the tumult that has rocked the library, particularly during the past 18 months, and Elder's exit, won't detract from the library's long history of excellence and professionalism.

"A change in leadership does not change this commitment," Hancock said, "and we look forward to renewing our focus on the services we provide to this great city."

Disappearing down the library's fifth-floor hallway minutes after relinquishing her post, a calm and composed Elder managed a smile.

"I've enjoyed my time in Salt Lake City," she said, turning to walk away.

djensen@sltrib.com