By John Burton
RED BANK — The bubbling, increasingly heated cauldron that the relationship between the public library board of trustees and the borough council had become over the last few weeks reached the boiling point.
In recent days the Borough Council, which had a growingly strained relationship and had been in contentious discussions over the public library’s budget that called for layoffs and operating hour reductions, had moved to insist the library trustees forsake their own budget and adopt one drafted by borough administrator Stanley Sickels and borough Chief Financial Officer Eugenia Poulos. The council also ordered that the library reinstate two of its three full-time employees – union members – who were initially laid off as a cost-savings measure. In response, six of the seven members of the board tendered their resignation last Saturday. And Virginia Papandrea, the library’s executive director abruptly stepped down, effective Tuesday at the close of business.
Papandrea had been scheduled to retire at the end of May and then said she would be leaving by April’s end, before leaving this week.
To address the lack of a board, the borough council was scheduled to convene Wednesday evening – after press time – to appoint new board of trustee members.
The board members’ resignation letter stated in part that their decision was, “Because we are unable to implement the solution that we arrived at after almost a year of deliberations – made more difficult because we knew these decisions would affect our friends and neighbors – it has become apparent that we cannot operate as an effective and independent board as stipulated by the NJ State Library statutes.”
Commenting on the borough council’s move at its April 9 public meeting, John Grandits, who had been library trustee president until last Saturday’s resignation, said, “I think these guys pulled a fast one.” Grandits contended borough officials are making decisions based on political expediency and to appease the labor union, and are failing to acknowledge the financial challenges the library has to address.
“I don’t see the numbers adding up” on the borough’s budget for the library, Grandits said.
“To say they’ve not appreciated us and our work is an understatement,” Brigid McCarthy, the former library board treasurer, said this week of the council’s actions.
“We were misled, to be honest, by the board,” countered Borough Councilwoman Kathy Horgan, who serves as the library liaison for the council, alleging the board failed to negotiate in good faith. The matter had devolved into a controversy, perpetuated by the trustees misrepresenting the borough’s actions and position, she said.
“The borough was really making every effort to try and find a solution to this problem,” Horgan said. “The library board seemed to feel that their budget was the final word.”
The board of trustees announced last month that the library was facing a projected $131,000 deficit for its 2014 approximately $800,000 budget. In light of that, the trustees moved to lay off six employees – three full-time, three part-time – and had to scale back operating hours to about 20 a week, as well as cutting back or eliminating programs. Grandits and Papandrea said at the time the library had been receiving less money from the borough budget due to lower property assessments and the library continued to face increasing personnel-related costs. Without these steps the library would have likely had to close before the end of the year, Grandits warned.
Trustees and Sickels and Poulos had held a series of sessions to seek a solution. And borough officials had worked diligently to crunch the numbers to find ways to offer some additional money for the library, offering alternative budgets, Horgan said.
But Grandits said those alternatives were inadequate to address the problems and Sickels was looking to strong-arm the trustees into rehiring the full-time union employees, in Grandits’ words “to make his life easier,” meaning Sickels.
Sickels did not return phone calls this week seeking comment. But Mayor Pasquale Menna said in March, union employees are subject to seniority placing, meaning library employees might have been eligible for other borough jobs, and that could ripple through much of the workforce and make placing employees complicated.
The borough’s alternative budget offers some additional municipal money as well as having located some surplus from previous years’ library budgets and will allow the library access to surplus money the council bonded a number of years ago for the library renovation project, borough officials had said previously. And that, Horgan said this week, should help get the library on better financial footing as a new board seeks long-term remedies. “I feel very positive about the direction we’re moving” now, she said.
McCarthy took issue with the council’s actions, alleging it violated state statute. Library boards, while appointed by the mayor, are intended to function independently, “in order to be above politics and election cycles,” McCarthy said. And the board conferred with a lawyer, Bertram Busch, North Brunswick, and “He did say we have a case,” McCarthy said. “But the board thought in the long run they would not like to spend library’s money,” she continued. “Because we care about the library.”
When contacted on Wednesday morning, Busch declined to comment.
Horgan responded by saying she relied on the legal opinion of the borough attorney, Daniel J. O’Hern Jr., regarding the council actions.
O’Hern was not immediately available for comment on Wednesday.
Borough officials have long ignored the library, McCarthy alleged. “And if this is what it takes for the borough to finally pay attention to the library and offer support, which they haven’t in the past,” she said, “then maybe in the long run it’ll be a good thing for the library.
“I wish them well,” McCarthy said in conclusion.
“I really think we made the right decision. This is what we felt is right and best for the community,” Horgan said. “It is what it is and we’re moving forward.”
Grandits, on the other hand, offered a fearful project given the library’s finances and the borough’s action. “I don’t see how the library can be sustained like this,” he said. “I don’t see how it can continue past November.”
Elizabeth McDermott, the history librarian who was laid off and then reinstated, will serve an interim library director, Horgan said.