Librarians Sira Williams, left, and Elizabeth McDermott embrace after being reinstated to their jobs Wednesday night. Below, trustees Denelle Johnson, left, and Brigid McCarthy with Administrator Stanley Sickels after the meeting. (Photo by John T. Ward. Click to enlarge)
By JOHN T. WARD
Pulling rank on its own appointees Wednesday night, the Menna Administration rehired two of the three full-timers laid off from the public library amid warnings of a financial crisis last month.
During a tense council meeting at which officials characterized the library’s trustees as “intransigent” and “hostile” to administration guidance, borough Administrator Stanley Sickels also presented the outlines of a library budget that he said would yield surpluses this year and next, and enable the facility to restore some hours of operation, which were cut last month.
That’s in sharp contrast to the spending plan crafted by the eight-member library board, which anticipated a shortfall of $131,000 this year and dire consequences next year if the full-time staffing was not reduced.
Two clearly frosted trustees continued to insist that the administration was fixing purported errors that did not exist in the board’s budget and had failed to communicate with the board in recent weeks.
“I don’t understand the adversarial position,” library trustee Brigid McCarthy told the council during a public comment session after the vote. “This problem is much bigger than two jobs. Rehiring these two people will only kick the can down the road.”
The rehirings capped a monthlong standoff between the governing body and the all-volunteer trustees. At issue: whether in fact the the library faced a $131,000 operating deficit this year and worse financial straits next year because of personnel costs that the trustees said eat up 95 percent of the library budget.
After a 15-minute closed-door executive session at the end of a regular bimonthly meeting, the council voted unanimously to put history librarian Elizabeth McDermott and children’s librarian Sira Williams back on the payroll, effective Thursday morning.
Moments later, borough Administrator Stanley Sickels handed McCarthy and fellow trustee Denelle Johnson copies of alternative proposed budgets that he said would enable the library to generate surpluses of $32,000 this year and $120,000 next year.
The administration’s proposed budget will not be posted online until it is discussed with library officials, said Sickels.
The borough spending plans, which Menna said had been reviewed by the borough auditor, call for the borough to absorb cost of a library custodian; pick up some of the cost of a sick-time payout of $72,500 to a library employee who plans to retire this year; and contribute $4,700 to the purchase of new computers. The plan also anticipates hiring an interim director at $35,000 for the remainder of the year to replace director Virginia Papandrea, who has resigned effective April 30.
“We have shown there’s no need to lay these people off,” Sickels said.
Administration officials said the borough had issued the layoff notices on March 12 after accepting “at face value” the trustees’ assertions that the cuts were needed to avert a crisis. Three of the library’s eight full-timers were pink-slipped, and all three part-timers were let go.
That prompted outrage from library patrons, who implored the council to reverse the layoffs.
But the quasi-autonomous board did not deliver its proposed budget to borough hall until five days later, Sickels said. That’s when he and borough Chief Financial Officer Eugenia Poulos began identifying line items amounts that might be juggled to save jobs, he said.
Poulos “determined that the Board erroneously included certain items in its budget, including capital improvements & purchases, that the Borough, and not the Library, is responsible for as part of its capital improvements budget,” the council resolution reads in part.
McCarthy, however, continued to dispute Sickels’ characterizations of the board proposal, and expressed frustration that the board had not heard from the administration in the past two weeks, despite having asked for a meeting.
McCarthy also maintained that Sickels was part of the library’s discussions about possible layoffs as far back as September, when the board first sought a meeting with representatives of the Communication Workers of America about possible layoffs. Two meetings were subsequently held, with Sickels in attendance, she said.
Sickels, however, said the discussions were strictly about how to handle any layoffs under the terms of the union contract.
As McCarthy bandied with Sickels during the public comment session, Councilwoman Kathy Horgan, who serves as liaison to the library board, said the board had been “very adversarial” to the administration. “You have to be a little more open,” she said.
It was not immediately clear what will happen if the board refuses to adopt the borough’s suggestions. But the council’s actions were a clear sign that Mayor Pasquale Menna, who appoints the board’s members, was following through on a threat to a take “unilateral” action.
Though there had been buzz about a mass resignation by trustees, McCarthy and Johnson said they were still on board at the moment. No other trustees were present at the meeting.
McCarthy also said that Menna, who is a member of the board, had not attended any of its meetings.
Menna was present at the library on March 27, after the board held a public Q&A session but before it went into its own closed-door discussion on the budget. He remained outside in a hallway.
Here’s the resolution on the rehirings: RB 14-119