Rockingham library to close for repairs

Trustees will decide whether books will be available, or stored, as well as whether staff will be laid off

BELLOWS FALLS — The Rockingham Free Public Library Board of Trustees is slated to decide whether to move the library offsite and possibly lay off library staff for the summer at its May 13 meeting.

At a trustee public meeting held Monday at Village Square Booksellers, Library Director Célina Houlné reported to the trustees that the library staff preferred the library move to another building while Engelberth Construction Inc., completes repairs on the library's current building.

This “Scenario A” would involve moving the collection to a temporary building for two months. The library's summer programs would happen at available locations across Bellows Falls.

This scenario allows library staff to continue providing services to the public, said Houlné.

“Scenario B” would entail closing the library to the public, said Houlné. Summer programs would still happen at locations in town.

Both scenarios would require some cutting of staff hours, she said. But Scenario B would have the greater impact to staff. Houlné's position too could be on the chopping block.

Laying off staff could mean losing good employees, she said.

Numerous administrative tasks occur “behind the scenes” in a library, said Houlné.

Ultimately, staff wanted to remain in the library during construction, said Houlné, but the trustees voted last week to move the contents of the library out of the building for two months.

The question is whether the collection will be available to the public for that duration.

Moving the collection will require a lot of work and has the staff concerned, said Houlné on Tuesday, adding that staff were boxing items as she spoke.

“But that's my job - to make that happen,” she said.

The trustees have told Houlné that they want to put money back into the renovation project, which ground to a halt when the first contractor, Baybutt Construction of Keene, N.H., filed for bankruptcy earlier this year.

The board of library trustees, too, has found itself embroiled in controversy including allegations of open meeting violations and leaking rumors about Houle [The Commons, April 24].

The May 6 meeting was intended to take public comment and for the trustees to hear Houlné's report on moving the library for the summer.

The meeting, however, became contentious at times, according to audience members.

One observer remarked, “It was loud.”

Guidance but no enforcement

Word of turmoil around the library has reached the Secretary of State's office.

Deputy Secretary Brian Leven said he has responded to multiple emails and phone calls about how Vermont's public meeting law, public record law, minute taking, and the posting of agendas pertained to library trustees.

The agenda for the May 6 meeting was changed slightly - the public would have only one minute to speak rather than three - over the weekend, said Houlné. Some audience members complained during the meeting about not receiving notice of this change.

The Secretary of State's office does not have enforcement powers, explained Leven. The office provides guidance, he said.

The state's open meeting and public records laws cover a board of library trustees, as they do any public body like a selectboard, said Leven.

The one requirement of posting an agenda, he said, is that it be available upon request.

Regarding public comment, Leven said that Vermont law protects the right of members of the public to have a reasonable opportunity to express themselves. Room exists for a board to curtail speech within reason.

It's reasonable to expect that people remain civil and polite, not use obscenities, and refrain from repetition, he said.

Enacting a “hard and fast” time limit, he said, was not necessarily reasonable, but it would depend on the situation. If 200 people attended a meeting, then maybe a time limit would be reasonable, he said.

Leven added that the Secretary of State's office would help guide anyone concerned about the library, regardless of their position on the subject.

Attorney general's office involved

Vermont Assistant Attorney General Bill Reynolds confirmed that the AG's office is looking into complaints that the trustees violated the open meeting law.

The ongoing inquiry sparked from a complaint received by the office on April 18. Reynolds said the AG's office wrote a letter to the chair, Jan Mitchell-Love, on that date. The office has received a response from Mitchell-Love, but Reynolds said that he and his colleagues are awaiting further information.

Calls to library trustees were not returned by press time.

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