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The Salt Lake City Library's former employee president, who found himself at the center of the storm over staff unrest, says he was offered $2,500 in "gag" money to ensure he "left happily and quietly" when he resigned last summer.

Clinton Watson says he could no longer abide Director Beth Elder's "grotesque violations" of policy and "disgusting" disdain for library principles. And he cannot understand City Hall's support for the embattled director.

Library spokeswoman Julianne Hancock concedes money was discussed on her back patio with Watson — "halfway through a bottle of Jack Daniels," she says — but insists he raised a "hush money" figure of $10,000, and she considered it a joke.

The library's Human Resources manager has now launched an investigation.

The dispute comes as the library's latest tumult over a clampdown on all-staff email simmers and as the Library Board prepares to huddle Thursday. At the meeting, the nonprofit fundraising arm Friends of the Library is expected to vent over the library's "chronic problems."

Hancock, the library's communications director, explains she and Watson were friends. During a casual conversation on her patio last summer, she says, Watson told her it would take $10,000 to keep him quiet about the yearlong library turmoil.

"I laughed it off," she says. "I don't carry around a suitcase of bills to pay off employees. That is not something the library would do either. I, nor Beth, nor anybody at the library had any intention to pay anybody off for their silence. I took the entire conversation as a joke."

Hancock says the request was "kind of absurd," arguing Watson had already dished all the library dirt he had to the news media.

She says she has fully cooperated with the Human Resources investigation, launched in late September.

For his part, Watson downplays any drinking claims and maintains the gag proposal was Hancock's offer — and no joke. "She may have been halfway through a bottle of Jack Daniels. I shared a shot, maybe two, with her. It was her bottle."

According to Watson, Hancock told him she and Elder had talked about "how to ensure I left happily and quietly" and that money had "been discussed."

"Out of curiosity, I said, 'How much have you talked about?' She said, 'How much do you want?'

"At this point," Watson recalls, "I was just intrigued, curious that they were even talking about it. I thought about the most absurd number. ... I said $10,000 just to see the look on her face. Her response to that — she didn't laugh — was, 'no way are you getting that much money.'

"That's when she said, 'How about $2,500?' When she offered the $2,500 that's when I laughed, because I realized this was a serious conversation. We were actually negotiating for my silence. After I laughed, she got quiet. I left about 10 minutes later."

Watson, on a bike tour along the California coast, says the issue never resurfaced until he was contacted this month by the library Human Resources Manager Shelly Chapman. Chapman has interviewed Hancock but says she has not connected yet with Watson.

"All I'm doing is looking to see if a policy was violated," Chapman says. "Once I make that determination, as with any investigation, I give that information to the supervisor." In this case, the supervisor would be Elder. "We're not going to take any action against Clint," Chapman adds. "He's no longer our employee."

Watson, the past Library Employees Organization president, who represented about 250 workers, says he quit in July after losing all faith in Elder's leadership. He also fingers Library Board members for "covering their eyes and plugging their ears" over the mismanagement.

"Every time any type of incongruity comes up between Beth's decisions and policies and library procedures, they've had meetings quietly with her to figure out how they can change the rules," Watson says. "And then they reveal it publicly later. I have no idea why the mayor and City Council are so adamantly behind her."

The Mayor's Office says it was surprised by the gag allegation and latest library unrest and first heard about it from a news report.

"The mayor continues to have confidence in the ability of the board to administer management issues within the library," says Art Raymond, spokesman for Mayor Ralph Becker. "It's their mandate to do so."

This week, the Friends group, for the first time, publicly questioned Elder's management and the library's direction. Watson says he had multiple conversations with Friends President Jeannine Marlowe, who wondered whether the group should cut off funding.

"It seemed like a move that could do a lot of damage," he remembers telling her, saying to hold off. "But I think we've got to a point where Beth is completely deconstructing everything this library has done over the past 30 years. So I don't think there's anything we can do but stop her funding."

Hancock, speaking on Elder's behalf, deflected the criticism.

"Clint provided some valuable and constructive feedback when he was working for the library," she says, noting a work group he helped lead has devised a series of policy solutions to improve morale. "Everybody is entitled to their opinions and I wish him the best."

What's next?

P The Salt Lake City Library Board will meet at 3:30 p.m. Thursday at the Anderson-Foothill branch, 1135 S. 2100 East.