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The Commons

Turmoil at the RFPL

Accusations of open meeting law violations, improper actions by trustees chair, and slander bog down library

With additional reporting by Jeff Potter.

Originally published in The Commons issue #200 (Wednesday, April 24, 2013).

BELLOWS FALLS—With renovations to the Rockingham Free Public Library in a state of uncertainty following the bankruptcy of its contractor, its board of trustees has been at the center of some ongoing turmoil behind the scenes.

Amid the practicalities of how to accommodate the public during a construction process that has been disrupted, library trustees are engaging in an overall review and revision of library policies, said Deborah Wright, vice-chair of the trustees.

In the process, the board has been redefining “roles and responsibilities” and trying to create clear lines of authority and responsibility — a process that has at times created scenarios where staff don’t feel heard.

Wright said that as a consequence of an environment of stress, “everyone is very, very irritable.”

From allegations of open meeting violations to board members leaking rumors about their head librarian, the trustees have found themselves under fire in recent weeks.

Complaints to attorney general

Letters from two library staff members were entered into the public record at the April 8 meeting of the library’s board of trustees meeting, voicing concerns about sweeping policy changes that its chair, Jan Mitchell-Love, is enacting, in meetings that exclude the staff from participation.

At the behest of a library patron, Youth Librarian Samantha Maskell queried the Vermont Secretary of State’s office about the legality of “scheduling a special meeting [for] a discussion of future renovation plans for the library,” quoting from Mitchell-Love’s April 3 email.

Trustees have insisted that all meetings have been properly warned.

Friends of the Library president Elayne Clift expressed that possible “violations of open meeting law are deeply troubling. They speak to all that is amiss in terms of how the trustees, and in particular the chair, are executing their duties.”

In addition, five members of the community affiliated with the library (officers of Friends of the Library and former trustees) also sent a letter to Deputy Secretary of State Brian Leven.

It said, in part, “the Chair of the Trustees has continually failed to understand the role and responsibilities of the office and has taken actions that could render the library at risk legally, ethically, and financially.”

“These actions include such steps as calling meetings without proper legal notice and often determining them to be closed in violation of open meeting law, making decisions not in the purview of that office for which the other Trustees and the Library as a whole would be held accountable, sending emails to Trustees selectively, directing others in an inappropriate manner, and more.”

Leven responded that their concerns should be sent to the attention of Attorney General William Sorrell.

In response, the group last week sent a letter to Sorrell that alleged Mitchell-Love of:

• holding board committee meetings without publicly warning the public or the full board.

• unilaterally instructing that a committee meeting be attended by a maximum of four trustees so as to remain below the board’s quorum of five.

• instructing trustees to distribute minutes of board meetings, even though the library bylaws require the secretary to send minutes to the director, who is then responsible for making them available to the board.

• instructing that minutes of meetings include only votes taken, with no discussion.

• establishing committees to rewrite all the policies of the library.

• scheduling board committee meetings without the involvement of the library director, “stating that the director does not need to attend committee meetings, though the director has always done so in the past in order to provide necessary information and counsel and to accurately execute the board’s directions.”

In what the letter writers termed “a particularly disturbing episode,” they accused a board member of circulating “false and slanderous rumors of personal misconduct by the library director and a former trustee.”

These rumors, which were distributed widely by email, “have caused grave concern among those who are aware of the unfounded allegations,” they wrote.

What is a quorum?

In her April 3 email, sent to seven of the nine trustees, Mitchell-Love wrote: “Of the nine trustees, according to the chair, “a whopping eight of you want to be on the Policy Committee” that she had proposed.

Policy review subcommittees were to be formed because “almost every policy needs some sort of attention — we might need some new policies, we need to revise some existing policies, we need to update some policies — there is extensive work to be done,” she wrote.

They would “have two running sections [subcommittees] of the Policy Committee with three trustees on each,” which she wrote, “wouldn’t butt up against the quorum issue,” which Maskell’s library patron read as a potential violation of the open meeting statutes.

It’s not the ’quorum of the original Board’ that counts,” Condos replied to Maskell.

Condos’s response was that “someone is misreading statutes. One must read the definitions for both ‘Meeting’ and ‘Public Body.’”

“The committee or subcommittee of the Board is constituted by a number of members of the committee (or subcommittee), and if a quorum of that subcommittee is in attendance to discuss the committee’s business,” Condos continued.

But Mitchell-Love told The Commons that she was reminding people that trustees could not just “drop in” to scheduled committee meetings.

She said that “any time five trustees are somewhere doing library business it has to be warned as a [full] trustees’ meeting.”

A fully constituted subcommittee would then be running afoul of open meeting laws if “two of them were dropping in, [because] all of a sudden we have five trustees there,” she said.

Policy changes

Maskell noted in a letter at the April 8 trustee meeting, “it now appears that the Board is planning on making changes to the policies from the top down, without staff involvement it is important to remember that these procedures are under the jurisdiction of the library director and are written by the staff.”The Feb. 14 minutes note a change had taken place in the library director’s former duties: “Célina Houlné requested that it go on record that her job duties have been changed now that it is up to committee chairs to warn their own meetings and formulate their own agendas without the assistance of the Library Director unless requested.”

Former library trustee Debbie Wetzel, one of the critics of the current library leadership, said it more directly.

“Célina does a wonderful job and she doesn’t need her position undermined. She has done a wonderful job right from the beginning, and that what it she is doing.”

“Why do policies need to come during renovation projects?” Wetzel asked. “It’s taking away from her time being manager [during the renovation] when she has to micromanage personalities on the board.”

Wetzel said the chair’s role is to “direct the big ship and not micromanage all the little things — certain things have gotten out of hand.”

“What is the intention?” Wetzel asked. “When you break Robert’s rules and do this kind of power play, what is it for?”

Wright, the vice-chair, told The Commons last week that the board supervises one employee, Houlné, who, in turn, supervises and manages her staff.

Out of respect for that relationship, the trustees are attempting to honor that protocol, Wright noted.

“We don’t have direct impact on the staff,” she said. “We expect input from staff, and there’s protocol for that, but it’s not being observed.”

Warned meeting ‘not business’

The Feb. 14 trustee minutes reference a Feb. 6 meeting that “included discussion of long range planning ... including the generation of a contract for Célina Houlné.”

According to Mitchell-Love, the meeting was warned, but no record of who attended or what was discussed is available to the public. The only public proof that the meeting took place appears in the Feb. 14 minutes.

When The Commons asked Mitchell-Love about this meeting to which Houlné had been invited, at first she said, “It was a personnel meeting, but it wasn’t really a meeting. It was just a breakfast meeting.”She said the meeting at the Golden Egg, a restaurant in Saxtons River, had been warned as a personnel committee meeting, however. “The meeting consisted of having breakfast — there wasn’t any business,” she said.

She explained that the meeting was intended to be an ice-breaker in the face of tensions about the board’s evaluation of Houlné.

“We are all colleagues in this,” Mitchell-Love said.

“Nobody likes to be evaluated, but it’s just part of the contract and we don’t want it to be a source of stress,” she said. “So my idea was we did the social thing in February, and that would help with the stress level.”

“There has been, from a couple of trustees, some concerns about the personnel committee and the fact that the information that comes into it is confidential,” she said.

Mitchell-Love explained further, that with “concerns last year about the personnel committee, the process ended up lasting for a very long time.”

But, she admitted, that despite socializing, “there was still a lot of stress associated with [the process], so it didn’t work.”

‘Slanderous’ email

Amid the controversy, a Feb. 17 email was widely distributed locally by Bellows Falls resident Jim Mitchell, who publicly accused a then-member of the library trustees of unethical and unprofessional behavior.

In an email blind-copied to an unspecified number of recipients, Mitchell alleged that Duane Whitehead, who subsequently lost his bid for re-election to the library board, was “causing significant chaos and distress at local library trustee meetings, as well as the impropriety of his close relationship with the library director, exhibiting a conflict of interest for his elected position.”

“Pounding the table and yelling at board members to get his point across, grandstanding at meetings to drag out and or belabor a subject already decided by the board, these things and more have been the subject of much disquiet to the library board,” Mitchell wrote. “Sources close to the board have said it would be in the best interest of the library if this person did not get reelected.”

Whitehead later attributed the allegations as the reason for his unseating on the board.

In a letter submitted to the trustees March 14, Whitehead wrote, “The work that [the] library director and I did on the renovation project was always done in a professional manner. The person or persons from this board who spread this lie to Mr. Mitchell crossed the ethical line and does not deserve to continue on the library board.”

Whitehead went on to quote from the Manual for Vermont Library Trustees : “Vermont is a small state and most of our towns are small. People in public office often know one another and may even be related. The gossip mills are active.”

“Because your public library serves the public and uses public funds or funds that are entrusted to the library, it is essential that your board conduct its business in an ethical manner,” the manual continued.

At the next trustee meeting on March 14, Mitchell-Love noted, “There is presently no code of conduct in the library board of trustee guidelines.”

She noted that after consulting with a representative from the Vermont League of Cities and Towns and the town of Rockingham, the policy committee will add one to the “trustee guidelines.”

Then, “a motion was made to reject any implication that the library director has conducted herself with anything but professionalism and integrity,” which was approved and passed.

When interviewed by The Commons, Mitchell-Love refused to discuss Mitchell’s email, saying she hoped that by not responding to it, it would simply “go away.”

“It’s pure gossip, and would not be anything that anyone would consider in the evaluation of [Houlné’s] job as director. Its only gossip — that does not enter into that,” Mitchell-Love stated.

Whitehead responded again in an April 8 letter to the board but focused on who the source could be for Mitchell’s insinuations, noting in part, “by sullying my character with this lie the information in Mr. Mitchell’s email probably had its desired [effect] and I was not re-elected.”

“A fellow library trustee either gave directly or indirectly slanderous and privileged library board information to Mr. Mitchell so that he could provide this information in his blog,” Whitehead added.

“Mr. Mitchell did not get this information from any members of the Rockingham Selectboard, from general local gossip on the street, nor from aliens,” he said.

“Most of the information in this email came from an executive library board meeting and just for additional impact and effect it included a slanderous lie, too.

“In my view, being an ethical trustee means being honest, conscientious, and reliable. It requires courage to do what is best for the library and to never use the library for self-dealing or personal gain,” Whitehead continued.

Going further in defense of Houlné, Whitehead suggests the trustees respond, as “the library director, the library staff and the library trustees set the tone for library services and conduct to a community, in essence, the library’s ‘personality.’”

“Our library director is a hard working, conscientious, and decent person and she does not deserve to be slandered by a lie from a library trustee. Out of respect for the director and her work on behalf of the library, this board needs to take action to correct this wrong. To do that, you need to give her your full support, offer an apology for this very hurtful email, [and] take action against the offending trustee(s).”

Wetzel said, “I think we all thought this whole issue was going to go away. I think it started out innocently and built into this monster.”

Célina Houlné said she could not make a comment at this time, but did confirm that she has hired a lawyer.

Renovations and closure

Regarding what the library planned while the next phase of renovations proceed, Maskell told The Commons, “As of now, nothing has been decided.”

She said the staff is “waiting to hear more details about the work that will be done from the town so that we know what we need to plan around.”

Wright said last week that the trustees are looking at “all the options,” ranging from closing the building outright during some aspects of construction to offering limited library services in temporary locations.

Baybutt, the New Hampshire contracting firm handling the renovation, was removed from the project in January. Frederick L. Baybutt, its principal, filed personal bankruptcy on Feb. 14.

Court filings show the construction firm owing $852,785 to project subcontractors, as well as an “unknown” liability to the town of Rockingham over the project, which was originally scheduled for completion this spring.

Houlné and the staff have put together “a handful of possible scenarios for the day-to-day running of the library depending on what we hear from the town,” Maskell said.

Maskell added that the summer reading programs “are being planned to happen outside of the Library throughout the community, so that it will go on no matter what is happening with the renovation.”

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