Recent meetings of the East Lansing Public Library Board of Trustees have shown contention and disagreements between trustee members and library administration, and the Wednesday, May 17, meeting was no different.
In its near two-hour gathering, trustees rehashed divisions over funds available for a strategic plan, offered revisions for policies and met with the city’s labor attorney. All members were present with the exception of Secretary Pamela Smith who was missing her second meeting in a row.
Board approves April 19 minutes with some revisions, then goes into closed session.
The body began by approving its agenda and the minutes of the last meeting. The minutes had become a hot topic in the past, leading the trustees to look more closely at them. Trustees Amy Zaagman and Diane Goddeeris both suggested changes to the minutes to reflect what they had said at the April 19 meeting.
Less than 10 minutes into the meeting, the board moved into closed session, retreating to a private meeting room with an East Lansing labor attorney. Chair Polly Synk noted the session was requested by library administration for, “strategy and negotiation sessions connected with the negotiation of collective bargaining agreement” with the library workers’ union.
While the trustees and library administration were out of the room, Angelo Moreno, union member and ELPL’s Adult Services Librarian, told the assembled audience the union had reached out to administration on April 17 with notice of intent to bargain, but the parties had yet to schedule a meeting to begin the process. The union’s current contract expires on June 30.
ELi reached out to Moreno via phone on Sunday, May 21, asking if a meeting had been scheduled?
“We believe we will have final confirmation tomorrow for a start date in early June,” Moreno said.
The meeting resumed approximately 20 minutes later when the trustees and library administration made their way back to the meeting room.
During her report on behalf of the Friends of the East Lansing Public Library, Maureen McCabe-Power announced she would be stepping down as president of the organization on July 1 after 10 years of leadership. Liesel Carlson will become the new president. The trustees and audience thanked McCabe-Power for her time and efforts with a round of applause.
Community survey nears completion as follow-up to the Jan. 11 mistaken accusations against Black child at ELPL.
Synk and Trustee Ameenah Asante provided an update from the subcommittee formed to investigate the Jan. 11 incident during which library administration called the police after mistakenly accusing a Black child for someone who had caused minor damage in a bathroom. The two said they are nearly finished with a survey they intend to distribute to the community concerning library use and how comfortable individuals feel in the building.
Asante again confronted ELPL Director Kristin Shelley about available funds for the subcommittee to move forward with a strategic plan for the library.
“At previous meetings, I asked for a list of all of the accounts that could provide funding to help this move forward before fiscal year 2024, as well as a sum total,” Asante said. “In the email that was originally received, it did not show all available accounts. And in the email from yesterday that I received, that we all received before this meeting, lists the budget and it shows numbers and points to specific accounts. I have questions of what funds are available.”
Asante and Shelley had several minutes of back-and-forth, resulting in disclosure of the existence of a report that hadn’t been shared with trustees showing fund balances.
“If there is,” Synk asked, “at the end of a fiscal year, hundreds of thousands of dollars not spent, where does that go?”
“That goes into our fund balance,” Shelley replied.
“Where does that appear?” Synk asked.
“Probably not on here,” Shelley said. “Probably not on this report.”
“So if there are monies that come from… accounts and go to the fund balance, shouldn’t the fund balance be listed here?” Asante asked.
“The reports don’t print out that way,” Shelley said. “For whatever reason, it’s how the [city accounting] system works, so we can print out a separate fund balance report. But the fund balance isn’t really looked at until well after the end of the year because all of these accounts change because there’s payments coming out.”
After further prodding from trustees, Shelley said the fund balance consists of savings from previous years and it had been used to replace the library’s HVAC system and roof. She also said that when library positions aren’t filled, money that would be used to pay those wages goes into the fund balance.
Shelley reported the library had recently posted a part-time teen services position and will be posting for customer service positions and a social worker in fiscal year 2024.
ELi confirmed that a teen services position was posted after this meeting but, as of May 21, the posting is no longer available on the library website.
Asante continued to question Shelley, inquiring about unfilled positions and remarking she had heard from staff that “promises” had been made to fill positions after employees had left, including an employee who had “been doing the work of two people for going on two years.”
“I don’t think we promised anybody,” Shelley said, “but we can’t, we don’t know what the job market’s going to be. But, there were positions that were open. It was a part-time children’s specialist, or youth specialist, and there was a teen service specialist. Both were posted, both were interviewed for, and we just didn’t come with, no one rose to the top. So, we’re reposting the teen services one, and we’ll look at what we can do for youth services.”
“What I’m asking about,” Asante said, “if, let’s say, there are five positions that have gone unfilled, between part-time and maybe even potentially full-time, and the budget allows for that to be paid for in the fiscal year and it’s not being paid for, that’s a significant amount of money that isn’t being utilized and it’s now available in the fund balance. Is that correct?”“That’s correct,” Shelley said. “But what we just discussed earlier, in closed session, none of that was budgeted for.”
Shelley explained her budgeting process to Asante and the trustees. However, she did not clarify what she was referring to.
Continuing to look over budget documents Shelley made available, Asante saw $18,000 that had previously been in a line item for construction were now available for consultants to complete a strategic plan, something that had been available at previous meetings.
“In the last, now four, meetings that we were asking for, basically pressing how important this is,” Asante said. “So if a strategic planning consultant has been, if that particular work has been funded, we are here meeting and I don’t understand why that wasn’t told to us.”
“I guess I didn’t realize that I had put that [money] in there, but as you can see from the proposals [for a strategic plan], $18,000 wasn’t going to cover it,” Shelley said.
“That was my mistake,” Shelley later acknowledged. “I didn’t realize I had put that in there. I have been talking about strategic planning since 2019, so I probably kept rolling it over.”
“I’m trying to understand again,” Asante said. “If this is really a pressing issue, I would have loved to have seen, without even being prompted, like here’s all of this money available in the fund balance to find what we need…I don’t understand. In my brief time in being on the board, less than a year now, the numbers have always been front of the mind, top of the mind for you.
“And we have this situation, this incident that takes place [Jan. 11], and need support to have all things looking at this particular issue and how we can make this library into what it needs to be for the entire community,” Asante said. ”Not just people think it’s OK right now as is, but for the entire community. And if the funds were already set aside and available, I don’t know why [or] understand how again, asking for this type of support…”
“As I said,” Shelley said, “I didn’t realize I had put money away for strategic planning and we are moving forward with it. That’s all I can say. It’s gonna take time and it’s not going to be done in six months. It’s going to take a lot of time. And we will put the funds forward now. I hear your direction today. I haven’t necessarily heard that direction the last few months but I hear it today.”
Asante responded to Shelley with a long statement about her concerns.
“My piece is really around urgency,” Asante said. “And people around the community can’t, especially BIPOC [Black, Indigenous, People of Color] community, we don’t have the luxury of waiting until it’s a convenient time to talk about funding. I don’t think it’s asking too much. Existing as a BIPOC member of the community, it’s life and death every single day. So, when I talk about something that’s just casual or it would be nice or it would be great if, this is literally life and death. So when I say, like I allow my 15-year-old son to walk around East Lansing and to be with his mostly non-BIPOC friends, that’s how he’s seen in the community is very different than how his friends are seen, so it’s just a really important thing.
“I’m talking about urgency from that standpoint.,” Asante said. “I’m not talking about a budget and ‘it would be nice if.’ I’m glad that you’re expressing that you hear me now, but this is a really long time we’ve been having these conversations…for me, I understand why I’m on the board. I didn’t understand last year, but I understand why I have been appointed on the board. Because if things had continued the way they had continued in past years, it’s possible that none of this would have been as urgent as it is right now.
“And if I have to be the one to talk about it and to say the hard stuff and to have the public, however they feel, whatever the narrative is about this thing continuing, ‘we’re still talking about Jan. 11,’ then so be it,” she said. “It is what it is. But if it means the safety of my kids, I’m absolutely going to continue talking about this. And money that’s available to look at the library? This is the point. This is a privilege to have all this overage and the money to do something.”
Synk brought the budget discussion to an end, asking Shelley if the departure of financial personnel from city government would cause the budget to be late getting to the City Council for approval.
“24 [budget] has been sent to Council and will be voted on next Tuesday [May 23],” Shelley said.
“Did that come to us through email?” Synk asked.
“No, I don’t put my budget forward to you, I put it forward to Council,” Shelley said. ”So, if you would like a copy of the fiscal year 2024 budget, we can print you out a copy as well.”
“Our bylaws appear to say that we’re [the board of trustees] supposed to submit it to Council as opposed to the director, so I do think…,” Synk said.
“That’s never been the practice before, but OK,” Shelley said.
Board announces who will fill Goddeeris trustee spot at the end of her term.
After the budget discussion, Synk announced that Shawn Nicholson, an associate dean in the Michigan State University Library, had been selected by herself, Vice President Amy Zaagman and City Councilmember George Brookover to fill the trustee spot being vacated by Diane Goddeeris when her term ends this summer. A unanimous motion approved the decision.
The board next discussed revised drafts of library policy that Shelley and staff had prepared. The updated policies include the code of conduct and penalties and suspension procedures for library patrons.
Shelley reported speaking to 10 or 12 library directors throughout the state, including those of the Capital Area District Library, Bath, DeWitt, Ypsilanti and Ann Arbor about the policies they have in place. She said the city lawyer needed to vet the proposed updated policies after the board reviews them.
There was discussion about under what circumstances police would be called to the library. However, no final decision was reached.
Shelley gave her director’s report before the meeting adjourned. She said the ELPL held its first Books, Bites, and Bids fundraiser since 2019 with high attendance. Community Mental Health counselors will continue their presence in the library through the end of the month. Digital circulation rose by 36% in April, while physical circulation declined. Teen services averaged 52 users each day.
The next meeting of the ELPL Board of Trustees is set for 4:45 p.m. Wednesday, June 14 in the library’s large meeting room.