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Besieged Salt Lake City Library Director Beth Elder may learn her fate Friday.
The Library Board has scheduled a special 1:30 p.m. meeting to "discuss options and possible actions regarding [the] library director," the brief agenda reads.
Nobody from the board or library administration would say whether Elder would be dismissed, reprimanded or retained.
"I invite you to stay tuned," Board President Kevin Werner said Thursday.
Elder has been under pressure from library employees, former library executives, a past board president and, most recently, the Friends of the Library fundraising arm for her management style and policies. The Friends group has threatened to withhold its financial support unless the library's tumult and tanking morale cease.
The notice for the meeting at the Main Library downtown caught staffers by surprise. "They didn't even tell us until they sent out the announcement that there was going to be a board meeting," said Mark Ewing, president of the Library Employees Organization.
"In light of the recent stories regarding the library management, I'm pleased the board is going to do a review and take some action," said John Becker, who resigned from the Library Board in December, citing differences with Elder's direction.
Asked on KCPW this week if the board has full confidence in Elder, board member Elizabeth Gupta replied, "As a board, we don't represent a single employee, we represent the library as a group."
Elder did not respond Thursday to a Salt Lake Tribune request for comment.
"I hope the board does right by the employees and all the stakeholders of the library," said board member Mark Alvarez, who cast the lone dissenting vote this spring when Elder's one-year contract was renewed.
The Mayor's Office declined comment, insisting it is "not in the loop" on the special meeting.
In fact, City Hall has publicly distanced itself from the yearlong chaos engulfing the award-winning library.
The library, its board and policies may be autonomous, officials say, from the corridors of power across the street. But city leaders certainly have influence.
Mayor Ralph Becker nominates residents to the Library Board, which has embraced Elder's management policies. The City Council approves or rejects those nominees, along with the library's budget.
And, it turns out, council executive director Cindy Gust-Jenson huddled with board members last year to recommend changes to the library employee handbook that in part prompted the staff rebellion.
Gust-Jenson said she was invited to offer some board training and look at the employee manual.
"The thing I found most peculiar was that the staff was in a position to vote to override the management of the library," she explained. "That is highly unusual in any setting."
John Becker recalled seeing all references to "participative management" being crossed out and was "outraged."
"I absolutely did do that," said Gust-Jenson, stressing she simply volunteered her professional opinion one backed by a consultant and that employee unrest already was under way.
"I absolutely stand by the discussion of separation of board and [library] staff responsibilities," she added. "And I absolutely feel that some of what I have observed at the library is highly unusual on the part of staff."
In May, Ryan Carty resigned as a city librarian after 11 years, fed up with the new direction and removal of participative management.
"The way that [Elder] had basically taken away the ability of staff to have any input was very hard to stomach," Carty said. "It's unfair to say that everyone loved [former library director] Nancy Tessman all the time, but what Nancy did well was to make everyone feel like they were part of the process. Now, 'Achieving Organizational Excellence Outcome' goals has language that says if you don't get on board, you will not be promoted, you will not be successful. How would anyone want to voice concern, when the language of the document says that will not be acceptable?"
City Council Chairwoman Jill Remington Love, whose husband was on the Library Board that hired Elder, defends Gust-Jenson and calls it "hogwash" that she abetted the controversy. Love even takes "responsibility" for dispatching her.
"[Gust-Jensen] asked me and [Councilman] Stan [Penfold] if she could advise them on how boards function," Love said. "I saw no harm in that. I did not think in any way it took away the board's autonomy. Maybe it's something we should have run past the City Council."
Councilman Luke Garrott said he was "offended" by the Gust-Jenson episode. "It sure looks like an overreach of authority to me. This supposed autonomy of the library has been violated numerous times. This is the most egregious and destructive instance."
Garrott also said the mayor has "disproportionate power in shaping the Library Board," which "hasn't undergone the appropriate amount of vetting."
"What does it say about a society when City Hall can't allow any management style other than a hierarchical, authoritarian one that Beth was instructed to implement?" he said. "To maintain that the Library Board has exclusive discretion is a bit fatuous."
The Mayor's Office notes its distance is by design, so as not to "politicize" the library. After all, politicians interfering with library programming and content on the computers and bookshelves would be problematic.
Ralph Becker spokesman Art Raymond said the mayor plays a key role in staffing the Library Board while maintaining "appropriate independence."
"This process, determined by statute, is intended to guarantee that no single branch of city government can wield disproportionate influence on the makeup of the library's managing body," Raymond said in a statement. "The vetting process that begins in the Mayor's Office is expected to continue as council members make their decisions to either support or reject the mayor's recommendations."
So were the three Library Board members appointed this year Garrott voted against two of them properly vetted? "Yes, absolutely," Love said. "They are fabulous. I don't think we knew what their bias or position was. We trusted them for their wisdom that can add substance to the group."
That group faces perhaps its biggest decision Friday.
Library open and transparent?
In the wake of continuing Salt Lake City Library controversies, the board president issued a letter this month reaffirming the library's commitment to free speech, openness and transparency. That same day, library director Beth Elder was challenged at the board meeting to publicly release individual responses from a taxpayer-funded staff survey. Some statements are reportedly damning. Elder said she will consider releasing them as part of a future report.
During the same meeting, Friends of the Library was granted the final slot on a two-hour agenda to make a presentation. In the meeting, Friends representatives threatened to withhold funding unless the library unrest ceased. In an email exchange obtained by The Salt Lake Tribune, Board President Kevin Werner told the Friends president, "I remain very uncomfortable adding an agenda topic whose contents I am not aware of." The board, he added, "will be considering a procedure to that effect, probably at our November meeting."
Derek P. Jensen