State Department of Libraries ‘very interested in helping’ RFPL trustees, state librarian says

BELLOWS FALLS — “Libraries are unique among municipal government and among town departments,” noted State Librarian Martha Reid, speaking to The Commons about the recent issues surrounding the Rockingham Free Public Library.

Reid explained that there are two types of public libraries in Vermont: municipal libraries and incorporated libraries.

“The Rockingham Free Public Library is a municipal library,” she said. Such a library, according to the state Department of Libraries, is a city, town, or village library established by a vote of the municipality. (In contrast, an incorporated library is a private, nonprofit corporation that also receives public funds to operate.)

“In order to be a public library, the library must receive some type of local funding,” Reid said. “Some libraries depend heavily on endowments.” All public libraries rely on some kind of fundraising.

To be sanctioned by the Department of Libraries, all libraries, municipal or incorporated alike, must comply with state statutes.

Reid noted that “The Law of Public Libraries” - a document produced jointly by the office of the Secretary of State and the Vermont Department of Libraries - helps interpret the state statutes.

In some towns, “the library is a town department and the library employees are town employees,” Reid noted. “There is a lot of room in there on how it gets played out.”

Sometimes, she continued, the head librarian or director is a department head. “In some towns, there is an agreement between the [library] board [of trustees] and town about library employees and their salaries and benefits.”

“By law in municipal situations, the trustees have the responsibility to evaluate, hire, and fire the head of the library or the library director,” Reid explained. “They have the duty to set library policy and to do the library budget.”

She further explained that these responsibilities can be different in different towns; “a town may have something in the charter that may differ from the law.”

In that case, “the charter has gone through the voters and [has] gotten legislative approval.”

Reid has been following the case of the escalating tensions over the RFPL and the recent firing of Library Director Célina Houlné [“Former library director envisions lawsuit,” News, Sept. 25].

“There are often difficulties between board and town,” Reid observed. “But I think this is probably the most public disagreement that I have seen between citizens and a board.”

As to whether sitting trustees can be removed, Reid said, “My understanding is that there is no mechanism for removing library trustees outside of what is in their library bylaws. They are elected trustees. And the town citizens have, in effect, said these are the people that we want on the library board.”

She said that citizens, “certainly can attend board meetings and let their views be known, but the only other recourse I see is that they go through their normal terms of office.”

Reid also spoke to the issues of public records and open meetings with regard to libraries, noting that she understands the need for members of the board to talk to one another.

“It may not be a matter of record,” Reid said. “However, in general, library boards, like any public board, need to make their business as transparent as possible.”

Reid noted that board members need to be able to “speak privately and engage in that way with one another,” but state library standards include complying with state open meeting law. She added that when library board members are conducting business, they should keep in mind that communications could be matters of public record.

Reid acknowledged that ultimately, the business of the library is up to the trustees.

But that since the library is “a public institution, [trustees] need to be civil at the very least, [and] have a civil discourse so that town citizens feel like they have a voice in the board and feel they have a say in how it is run and in what services are delivered.”

Reid also explained, “The Department of Libraries doesn't have any jurisdiction over any state libraries, but we do administer state standards.”

“We are advisory,” she said.

Part of the minimum state standards from the department is that “a board meets the open meeting law,” Reid said.

For any libraries engaging in violations “that wouldn't meet our state standards,” those entities would not qualify as state-sanctioned libraries, she added.

Reid noted that she has offered several times to come to Bellows Falls to help train the board of trustees.

“The Department of Libraries has offered to give the board training on things like conducting board meetings in good practices, the open meeting law and what that means, and what they need to do to comply with the law,” Reid said.

“I have offered to speak with the board or attend a board meeting,” she noted. “I have not been invited.”

“Our department is very interested in helping this board.” Reid said. “I think that the board members take their board positions seriously. But they need to really step back and ask themselves: What is the library? What do we want to have here in the library? And put that at the center of that [board's] business. And work with the town, citizens, and staff to make that happen.”

“The heart of the matter is to provide the best possible library service to the citizens of Rockingham,” Reid said. “It would be good if they could keep that in mind and that would allow them to get that through the disagreements and partisan positions.”

“The Rockingham Library has proven itself to be a wonderful library. They have a very good staff, have established outstanding programs, new building program implemented,” Reid said. “You have much to be proud of in your library.”

But, “I am saddened by this,” Reid said. “It feels at a distance like it didn't have to happen this way. It's very common for any board to have disagreements and different opinions.”

Those differences are healthy, in fact, Reid said.

“But to have it become so antagonistic - it just feels like they have lost sight of the most important part of what their work should be,” she said.

“I really hope that they can get back on board, and I am available to help them see how that could happen,” Reid concluded.

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