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Library Board And New Director Taken To Task

The Board of Trustees of the C.H. Booth Library and new Library Director Shawn Fields were criticized repeatedly during the public participation portion of the monthly library board meeting Tuesday, September 1,.

Noting that extensive regular board business required limiting the public participation period to one half-hour, a time that proved adequate, Board President Martha Robilotti first recognized Dr Anne Rothstein, a 37-year resident of Newtown who said that she has always made use of the library, appreciates the assistance of the staff, and has always been “a loyal supporter of the Friends of the Library,” as well as having utilized the reference department for study and writing.

Dr Rothstein said that in her 50 years at Lehman College in the Bronx as department chair, associate dean, and associate provost, she has come to realize that there are ground rules associated with those executives who have made the greatest contribution to the growth of the college, and that those rules apply generally to organizations. “Cyrenius Booth Library is no exception,” said Dr Rothstein.

She pointed out that those rules include learning about the organization before making changes; meeting with all departments and staff in an organization to acquire needed information; avoiding the urge to institute change to show “that you are taking charge”; engaging the employees to find out what does and does not work; identifying staff leaders and working as a team; and engaging those who will be implementing the plan when creating a strategic plan. Nor, said Dr Rothstein, does a successful leader assume he/she is an expert on all issues.

“Those [executives] who did acknowledge these rules by respecting their staff and by earning their respect before making change were able to move the college, department, or office ahead and were leaders of their faculty and staff,” Dr Rothstein said in her final statement.

Saying that she has never, in her 42 years as a Newtown resident and nine years as a library board member, heard the amount of negativity currently surrounding the new library director and proposed library changes, Liz Arneth asked the board members, “What steps are you going to take to alleviate this negativity? Are you taking steps to remediate it?”

Pat Denlinger and Kathy Geckle, who identified themselves as having served on the committees that set up the addition to the library, expressed concerns that the new director and board felt it necessary to make sudden changes.

Ms Geckle said that she had conferred with the architect who designed the new addition and that she found the claims that the third floor was unsustainable “Outrageous.” Ms Geckle questioned the board on the process of selecting a new director; what the vote was for the new director; and who gives the director the “green light” to make changes.

“Everyone has made bad decisions,” said Ms Geckle. “I believe hiring Shawn Fields was a bad decision,” she said, and requested that the board have current Assistant Director and Head of Circulation Beryl Harrison take over as an interim director for a year. “The goal of the library is and should always be,” Ms Geckle scolded the board, “public service.”

A former 20-year veteran of the library board, Joanne Zang reminded the board that when library director Betty Downs resigned in 1981, a young man “Who looked good on paper” was hired, and lasted just nine months. “Boards can make mistakes, but they can be remediated,” said Ms Zang.

She also addressed the issue of the C.H. Booth Library being open this past Labor Day, and called it a “waste of taxpayer dollars.”

The Labor Day opening of the library was also questioned by another former 20-year library board member, Mary Thomas. She expressed concern that staff had been put in a position that may have made them uncomfortable declining to work that holiday, in fear of jeopardizing jobs. “Why open the library if the roads are closed?” she asked, referring to the Labor Day hours of 9:30 am to 1:30 pm, during which access to the library was not possible by vehicles.

Ms Thomas also chided the board members for being largely not present at the August focus group meetings and urged members to be more active in the library. “Changes,” said Ms Thomas, “make transition chaotic.”

Former C.H. Booth Library employee Elise Silkowski also directed criticism at the Board of Trustees, both verbally and in a letter to the library board provided to The Bee. “I have always been appalled at the callous treatment and attitude displayed by the board and now the new director,” she said. “There seems to be an attitude of take it or leave, and I am disgusted by this. I feel the board is very disconnected from the needs of the community and from the library itself,” said Ms Silkowski.

(During the regular board meeting that followed public participation, Mr Fields said that the staff “has mentioned they don’t feel connected to our board.” He suggested the board provide opportunities, such as a holiday party with the staff, to help them feel more connected.)

 “An old adage suggests that when one moves into a new house, one should live there a while before making changes,” wrote Ms Silkowski in the letter to the library board. “Clearly, Director Shawn Fields is not taking the time to get to know the community or his staff.”

At Tuesday evening’s meeting, Ms Silkowski questioned the way in which Mr Fields had been hired, and reminded all in attendance that the C.H. Booth Library serves as a place of refuge and comfort to many.

It is important that the board appreciate the staff “and not try to take away from gifts they want to deliver,” she said.

Maureen Rohmer, also a former library board member, asked that the board reconsider the decision on library Director Shawn Fields. “Organizational skills and leadership must be combined with interpersonal skills… I see a disconnect between staff and director,” said Ms Rohmer.

Local author Justin Scott, in a letter read by board member Daniel Cruson, as well as Newtown resident George Duncan, requested a reinstatement of reference librarian Andrea Zimmermann, whose position was recently eliminated. While Mr Scott suggested that the new director might be able to admit a mistake [in the elimination of Ms Zimmermann’s position], have her rehired, and thereby “start over,” Mr Duncan requested nothing less than a dismissal of the new director and return of Ms Zimmermann to the library.

Ted Kreinik identified himself as a trustee on the library board for many years. He expressed disappointment in library changes and the inconvenient times of the three August focus group sessions. Mr Kreinik suggested that if the chemistry [between the new director, staff, and patrons] was not right, “Goodbye.”

After hearing the public remarks, the board turned without comment or response to regular library board business for the remainder of the meeting, and closed the evening with an executive session.

(Update: September 13, 2013. Additional letters received by the board from members of the public can be found in the September 10, 2013 Board Minutes.)

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