Filling the Empty Seat

Back in July, one of the two people I referred to as “sheep” stepped out of that role by going against her voting block and proposing a change to the budget that allowed the library to keep its staff and to keep appropriate open hours for a community the size of the Niles-Maine District. The following month, she sent a letter of resignation to Board President Carolyn Drblik. Ever since, the Board has been split 3-3 on virtually every vote they take, with the result that every motion must fail.

It is now the job of the six remaining trustees (three library advocates (Keane-Adams, Olson, Rozanski), two fiscal hawks (Drblik, Makula) and one sheep (Schoenfeldt) to select the trustee who will fill out Hanusiak’s term until the next election, when the voters get to elect someone for the remaining four years of her term. It boggles the mind a bit to think how these deeply divided trustees can come to agreement, but I am certain they will have some excellent candidates to choose between.

Here’s what you need by law to be a Library District trustee, according to the Illinois Public Library District Act of 1991 (75 ILCS 16/). You need to be:

  • a resident for at least one year
  • a registered voter, or at least that is how I interpret the phrase “qualified elector”
  • not a felon
  • not in arrears on your library taxes 

That’s it. In my opinion as a former library director, to be a library trustee you should also have an unexpired library card; believe that the public library is an asset to the community; and understand that it is an entirely volunteer position. You need to understand that the library board operates as a body and being an officer doesn’t give you special privileges outside of what is specified in the Bylaws. You should be willing to learn about the library and all it offers to the community and not assume that you already know everything.

The tasks of a trustee are to hire and evaluate a qualified administrator, set policy, set the budget, and set the levy. That’s it. And make no mistake–it’s a lot of authority. Through setting policies, library boards decide everything from whether the library will charge fines to what paid holidays the staff gets. Through budget, they can decide how much funding to give each budget area. And choosing a director wisely is in many ways the most important responsibility the board has because having a director who can listen to the staff, the board and the community and make all of the thousands of day-to-day decisions is essential, as well as having a thick enough skin to allow people to speak their minds.

I mention that because new trustees often have the idea that NOW they can finally change the library to be what they want, whether it is having a program (or in the case of the fiscal hawks, getting rid of as many programs as they can without raising communty ire) or buying fewer copies/more copies of bestsellers, or turning the library into a book warehouse and getting rid of those pesky staff members. None of those is the job of a trustee. Running the library is the job of the director, who is a trained and hopefully experienced librarian. It is really helpful when people understand that before becoming trustees! Of course, trustees do have opportunities to make suggestions for good programs, etc. But they don’t get to decide what books to buy or what programs to hold. They don’t pick staff members, either, except their one employee, the director, who is then responsible for all aspects of hiring and evaluating staff.

The job ad seems to strongly favor candidates with business or government experience. That certainly can be useful, but people with social service, literacy, or a deep understanding of the community by working in a local school can also be extremely useful. You can learn to read a budget. But broadening the pool to include people with different perspectives from the current board is vital. It’s very easy to think that your immediate neighbors and fellow churchgoers represent the community when you never hear otherwise.

So the vacancy will be filled by the six trustees from amongst the residents who volunteer to fill that slot. I hope that the passionate public commenters who have showed how much they care by speaking up at meeting after meeting apply. I hope people who live in unincorporated Maine Township apply, because that is a major gap on the too-homogeneous board as I advocated back when there was a previous opening. I hope some of the candidates represent the diversity of the community. I very much hope that the Board isn’t used by anyone as a political stepping stone, which could only lead to further disaster. But difficult as it may be, it is the responsibility of the six trustees to come up with a process for choosing candidates and ultimately to appoint someone. It’s not optional. 

Next up: Determining the levy

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Good Minutes Matter

Any organization with official meetings has official minutes. In Illinois, that’s not only a Robert’s Rules of Order requirement, but for the board of an elected body, it is a legal requirement as a central part of the Open Meetings Act. In the Illinois Public Library Annual Report, there is an audit of the year’s minutes that must be submitted. This year, with the incredible number of meetings requiring minutes since the new Board at the Niles-Maine District Library was seated, they did not manage to get all of the minutes finished and approved as required by law. 

I have some sympathy for the Board’s new Secretary, Suzanne Schoenfeldt. Imagine being newly seated on your first board as an elected official, and having the Board President, Carolyn Drblik, scheduling so many meetings! For just the period since she was seated as Trustee and voted in as Board Secretary, and up to the cut-off for the 2020-21 fiscal year on June 30, Ms. Schoenfeldt was responsible for (if I am counting correctly) 9 meetings and 3 executive sessions which all require written and approved minutes. The somewhat circus-like atmosphere of some of the meetings would make that task all the more difficult.

Different organizations handle minutes differently. All the law requires is that the minutes convey the substance and actions of the meeting, as well as the attendees, starting and ending time, etc. The NMDL practice was to keep the minutes spare and referring people to the video posted online for more details. Other organizations try to capture more of the discussion, but they typically don’t post meeting videos. The NMDL minutes had become so spare because at every meeting, Trustee Drblik always insisted on having her direct quotes included, and the approval of minutes sometimes took 15-20 minutes all by itself.

Now President Drblik is making sure that the minutes are written to her specifications, and that takes time. For some 20 years, the Library’s Administrative Assistant would write up excellent, brief minutes that were rarely changed. But now the Board President has instituted a new procedure where any trustee can say what they want added to the minutes, and it becomes the job of the Administrative Assistant to go back and listen to the recording to confirm that the wording is correct before the minutes are approved. Here’s the problem with that–it is making changes completely out of context. The new quotes are not being heard in light of whatever discussion went on. For instance:

Imaginary Trustee Glummy: “You’re an idiot”

Imaginary Trustee Noodles: “No, you’re an idiot!”

Weeks later, Trustee Glummy: “The minutes need to reflect that Trustee Noodles said, “You’re an idiot!”

The words might be accurate, but minus the context it is very misleading. And it throws the balance way out of whack for one trustee to insist that her words be included when trustees aren’t typically being quoted.

Last month, President Drblik attempted to add a “clarification” to then-Trustee Olivia Hanusiak’s motion setting the library’s hours back to pre-pandemic (70 hours per week) and not reducing the staff size. Drblik tried to change the minutes to reflect the then-current hours per week (66) and to say that it didn’t mean that they couldn’t fire anyone. Her clarification was an obvious attempt to rewrite history, turning a motion that took her by surprise and which she did not want in any way into something more palatable. She instructed the Administrative Assistant to review the recording and held the minutes for the August meeting. She then initially put a motion on the August agenda to clarify the motion, but that agenda item has now been withdrawn, probably after a chat with the library attorney since putting words into the mouth of a trustee making a motion and no longer on the board to defend herself is not legal.

Minutes are important for maintaining a historical record. The role of the Board Secretary is a crucial one in overseeing the minutes as written up by either herself or library staff, and in signing them into the record. The Board Secretary has ultimate responsibility for each set of minutes, and that has so far proved to be an enormous job. I very much doubt that Secretary Suzanne Schoenfeldt realized fully what she was signing on for in being the person who signs all of the library’s ordinances, resolutions, and minutes. Trying to work with a Board President who wants to keep changing the minutes to reflect her views creates an ethical dilemma for her and complicates her job all the more. It’s her name, and her responsibility, and I for one don’t envy her.

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Library bubbles

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about bubbles. Not the floaty, shiny kind of bubbles, but the kind where you might not even realize you are encased in one, with other people. 

In the library world, we’ve been using the word “silo” more than “bubble”, and I have written about that before. It’s really destructive to focus on your own department and ignore or even do battle with the others. And in one way, the pandemic really helped break down some walls. I will always remember our first all-staff Zoom meeting, and the visible joy everyone felt in seeing each others’ faces again. We kept those meetings up, and often had over 60 in attendance. It was a chance to share information, talk through strategies, and tell stories. I loved them.

There were also the individual departmental meetings, and those were more of a mixed blessing from a management point of view. On the one hand, it was great for departments to be able to have focused meetings to plan programs, solve logistical issues, and most of all to support each other through what was for many a very lonely, scary time. (I think we sometimes forget just how scary it was for a few months, pre-vaccine.) I know that the department heads staggered under the weight of supporting their staff members, and it was a challenge. The meetings were also vital because when we divided up into teams and were working different schedules, it was an effective way to bring everyone up to speed.

On the other hand, having frequent meetings with just your own department bred a little bit of an Us Against the World mentality at times. One of the easiest ways to bond a group together is to have a common enemy, and if just one person feels that one department wasn’t pulling its weight, or if two staff members from different departments had a disagreement, that unintentionally made the departments close ranks. There was also occasionally a feeling that nobody realized how hard THEY had it compared to the other departments. I was always very focused on Youth Services when I was the department head, and saw it as my role to advocate for my staff and customers, and I’ll bet I kept us in our bubble way too much.

As director, I tried to dismantle some of the bubbles by forming several cross-departmental committees, but the pandemic firmed up those bubbles again. Savvy department heads will spend some time focusing on this in the next few months. It would be smart for them to come up with a list of phrases that might be signals that the bubble is getting stronger, like, “We are the only department that…” and agree on trying to cut those sentences off. Of course, at NMDL, there is a lot of group building going on through their work with AFSCME, so it’s possible it won’t be as necessary. 

The other place where bubbles are a big problem are in the community. We all know about the bubbles created by only talking on social media to people who feel the same way that we do, and that’s a very real issue. But the one I see having a huge impact on the Niles-Maine District Library is that the Board is made up of trustees who literally live within a few blocks of each other and attend the same church. That has created a very problematic bubble, because so much of their interaction is with people who are very much like themselves. Yet the library district is extremely diverse. When the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning (CMAP) spent some time developing a plan for the unincorporated area that the library serves, they concluded that if it was its own municipal area, it would be second only to Chicago in its diversity.

So it’s really a problem that the entire board is white and has English as their primary language in a community serving so many different cultures and ethnic groups. I think it is very challenging to serve multiple groups and to listen to them, understanding that they may have a very different and equally important point of view. But the Board has an opportunity now to try to expand their bubble in a truly meaningful way, because at the last Board meeting Trustee Hanusiak stepped down, and it will be up to the Board to agree on a trustee to serve until the next election. I very much hope that they make sure that it’s not just their friends and neighbors who hear the word that they can apply to be a trustee and be interviewed by the Board–that word needs to get out to unincorporated Maine Township, where there are plenty of people who could put forward the needs of some of the other taxpayers. Ideally, it would be a person of color.

At various times in the past, the library had a branch to the north in two different locations, and also had a bookmobile that is still remembered very fondly. It is a long, skinny district with the library building located at one end. That means that getting more than a superficial understanding of the people living at the other end takes hard work, the kind where some of the things you try inevitably will fail. It is so much easier to be satisfied with the status quo, and to talk with the people that you already have a lot in common with, because they understand you and you understand them. It takes real effort to talk to people you have less in common with, and it’s absolutely necessary.

Bubbles are beautiful, and airy, and sometimes surprisingly tough. But the truth is, when you are inside of a bubble, you are stuck. Staff shouldn’t be stuck, and neither should the board of trustees. 

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Of Legal Fees and FOIA requests

I am not a lawyer–let me start with that. I am a looking-for-work library director/children’s librarian, not an attorney. But I don’t think you have to be a lawyer to see that the Niles-Maine District Library taxpayers are wasting a huge amount of money on lawyers these days.

Board President Carolyn Drblik read a statement at the Public Hearing on July 19 which explained that they are increasing the appropriation on the budget line for legal fees to a cool half million dollars. The Budget & Appropriations Ordinance always has two columns–one is the budget, and the other tells the Cook County Treasurer how much the library can spend. That allows them to spend more than budgeted if the cost of something essential like Workers’ Comp Insurance comes in higher than projected. It also allows them to spend money if they get an unexpected donation or grant–if it’s not appropriated, you can’t spend it. The way I always think of it is that the budget numbers are the promise of administration to the Board that they won’t overspend, and the appropriation allows them to go over that amount if necessary.

So having the appropriation be bigger than the budget is absolutely normal. The Director would still have to explain to the Board why they are spending more than the budget if they do, and it is not a license to overspend. But allowing for $500,000 in attorney fees? What? President Drblik blamed the increase on two things: the staff having filed to form a collective bargaining unit, and that the library has been getting so many FOIA requests. If I could stand it, I would find the moment in the May Board meeting where President Drblik told me that I can’t call the lawyer without permission, because they didn’t think it was necessary to call so frequently for things like FOIA questions.

In the time since the new Board came on (June and July) they have paid the library’s longtime law firm, Klein Thorpe & Jenkins, $16,123. They are one month into the new fiscal year, and have already spent 26% of the budget. What were those billable hours spent on? President Drblik decided she couldn’t trust the library’s FOIA officers to handle FOIA responses properly, so she now has them all sent to KTJ where they can be scrutinized professionally.

I am not a lawyer, but my undergraduate degree was in journalism, and of course the whole point of libraries is making information available, so it strikes me as very concerning indeed that KTJ is clearly being directed by President Drblik to redact everything possible. The purpose of the Freedom of Information Act is right there in its name–the idea is that the work of the public body should be open to the citizens to the greatest extent possible. There are legitimate exemptions to FOIA, such as not revealing personal information such as an employee’s Social Security number, say. And there is an exemption for drafts and memos that are preliminary. But KTJ is using that exemption to cover everything they possibly can, as detailed in the Niles Journal article of August 12, 2021 titled: Dark Days: Niles-Maine Library’s New Media Policy Largely Redacted. The illustration shows an email with the heading visible, and black bars covering the entire contents of the email. It is just one of many examples.

Very early on in my director days, the library won a “Sunshine Award” from the Illinois Policy Institute for its transparency. They had a rubric that spelled out all of the information such as x number of years of budgets that should be listed on a governmental agency’s website, and we hit every one. It is completely ridiculous that now, in 2021, instead of being transparent, the Library is instructing their attorneys to make sure they reveal as little information as possible to people who ask. It’s particularly ridiculous because in my years as Director, the two people who filed the most FOIA requests were President Carolyn Drblik, and Treasurer Joe Makula. Now that the shoe is on the other foot and they are the ones being asked for their emails, etc., they are not so enthusiastic about responding to FOIA requests. And it is costing the taxpayers thousands and thousands of dollars. 

That of course is just one of the library’s two law firms. The other firm, Heintzelman Law LLC, charges the library $350 an hour, so if there is a phone call like one I had before I left with two attorneys on the line, it is costing $700 per hour. The library does need representation in working out the details of the AFSCME contract, no question. But if Drblik and Makula use the same approach with Heintzelman that they are with the lawyers at KTJ, they will waste incredible amounts of taxpayer dollars fighting with the staff and with AFSCME instead of approaching it with good will. I can’t tell you how much Heintzelman charged the library for July expenses, because none were listed…which is odd. I can tell you that in June, they had already racked up a bill of $13,383.

It shows once again that people with bad intentions can run for local office on the pretext of protecting the taxpayers, and if the community doesn’t pay enough attention, they can end up paying half a million dollars in legal fees in just one year…or more. The cost in taxpayer dollars is only a fraction of the overall cost of having bad trustees running your local library. 

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What happened, and what’s next

The last three meetings of the Niles-Maine District Library have not gone very well for Board President Carolyn Drblik and Board Treasurer Joe Makula. At the Special Board meeting on June 30th (#9 in six weeks for those keeping score)  the planned agenda included cutting library hours from 70 to 54, back to what they were in Illinois’ Phase 4 of the pandemic. It also included an executive session for personnel, and an item that appeared to be going to make it a policy that only the Board President could communicate with the press, but we don’t know for sure because there was no draft policy or memorandum to explain it. And we’ll never know, because after listening politely to the public commenters, the three good trustees announced that since Trustee Olivia Hanusiak didn’t show up, there would not be a quorum without them and since they didn’t have the information they needed to know why they were there, “goodbye.” So that was the end of that meeting.

The next meeting was the Public Hearing on the Tentative Budget and Appropriations Ordinance, preceded by a hope-filled rally with around 250 people advocating for the library. It was co-sponsored by the Niles Coalition and AFSCME. There was great energy, excellent speakers, and all of the Chicago news outlets came to cover it. I attended the rally but after joining the march to the library, I headed home to watch the hearing. It was amazing too–more than three hours of heart-felt, well-researched, powerful comments from the overflow crowd, and almost entirely exclusively from residents. A few of the anti-tax crowd showed up too, but they were far outnumbered by the library advocates. Trustee Hanusiak did not show up to this meeting, either. For the first time, President Drblik had Library Attorney Dennis Walsh at her side–I guess she thought she needed reinforcements at $220/hour. There also appeared to be police officers on hand, which maybe you need if you are worried about the crowd hissing at you?

Then came the Regular Board Meeting where the budget was due to be passed. And you had better believe that this time, Trustee Olivia Hanusiak showed up. Niles Mayor George Alpogianis came and spoke in public comment again, offering to try to broker a budget deal and pleading with the Board to postpone voting for a couple of weeks, to just slow things down. Joe made his own plea that they just try it his way, and the Mayor left disappointed. Hats off to the mayor for trying. 

Fast forward to the motion to approve the final Budget & Appropriation Ordinance. First, Trustee Rozanski attempted to have the motion tabled (and the $220/hour lawyer did not point out that you can’t table a motion that hasn’t yet been made but whatever) but that motion failed. Joe then moved to approve the budget, and this was when Trustee Hanusiak stepped up with a prepared statement which she read. It was a “friendly amendment” to make two key changes to the budget–she wanted to restore the hours to pre pandemic levels, and to restore the staff budget lines so no one was being fired. Chaos ensued since clearly her cohort did not know in advance what she had in mind, and there was much confusion surrounding how to calculate the new line items. They tried to get Assistant Director/Business & Operations Manager Greg Pritz to calculate on the fly, but he pointed out that that is how mistakes make their way into the legal documents being filed at Cook County. So basically they voted unanimously to approve the final budget and appropriations document without the exact figures.

Did it do everything that the community and staff wanted? No. Lines for funding materials (books, DVDs, etc.), programs, staff training, the newsletter, and others were still cut. But to me the most important goal to achieve by far was not firing any of the staff. You can purchase more books and programs out of grant money, and if they get enough complaints about the newsletter they can change it back next year. Some of the other changes are more to do with policy–Joe’s decrees about staff doing cleaning and shelving between customers, and refusing to deliver to nursing homes or to send children’s staff to schools can easily be discarded as the nonsense they are. But replacing a group of staff members who are so devoted and knowledgeable would simply not be possible, especially with this erratic board running the show. So keeping the staff is the foundation for everything else.

There were two more excellent things that came out of these defeats for Drblik and Makula. One, it was a wake-up call that the Board President and Treasurer can’t rely on their approach of deciding together what the library is going to do and muscle-ing it through with four votes and no information or respectful communication with the other three trustees. And it also was an indication that Olivia Hanusiak got tired of being a sheep and decided to operate independently as a trustee. That is what she was elected to do, and good for her for stepping up.

What next?

The community response was amazing. They need to keep letting the board know what they want through public comments, petitions, letters, etc. The staff have already decided what their next step is going to be, which is forming a collective bargaining unit with AFSCME Council 31. 

Here’s what I think both residents and staff should demand:

Much better transparency There is a reason that the Open Meetings Act became law, and the hypocrisy of President Drblik in this regard is simply astonishing. She is now doing everything she ever complained about in her past 8 years on the board, and taken it further by her use of a private email account which she considers to be un-FOIAable. I suspect the Attorney General will see it differently, but the AG won’t know about the OMA and FOIA violations if they aren’t reported.

A newly developed strategic plan  I have long observed that tax hawks don’t like strategic planning, because they see it as a roadmap to spending. This is a foolish approach. They already refused to do the documented needed repairs like maintaining the roof, but they at least need to decide when they ARE going to fix the roof. They need to lay out what direction the library is going to go in. But the plan must genuinely come out of community and staff discussions, not out of the St. John Brebeuf church coffee hour. So many in authority at the library now attend SJB that they will need to be very intentional about getting out of their bubble.

A respectful negotiation with AFSCME The result of that negotiation needs to be a first contract that will protect the staff from this and any future vindictive boards, and reflects the understanding that both sides want what is good for both library and staff. The alternative is fighting at every turn, for $350 an hour of taxpayer money paid to the two labor lawyers from two different firms in addition to the library’s other law firm and their expenses. Paying the money out to lawyers is expensive, wasteful, and pointless. Let the library administration take the lead and consult the attorneys as needed. And let me just say that the new board took the staff from voting NMDL one of the Chicago’s Top Workplaces to unionizing in a matter of months. All of those costs now and in the future are on them.

Empower the staff  They are nothing short of amazing. Let PR & Marketing Department Head Sasha be the spokesman for the library. Let Ms. April, Ms. Donna, and Ms. Mikey head back out to the schools, and let Karen and Leslie go back to the nursing homes. Let the managerial staff decide who is shelving books and what the programs should be. They know what they’re doing. Make your suggestions and then step aside.

Fill the vacancies  The original budget included both returning to full hours and filling the vacancies, because otherwise there won’t be enough people to staff the desks for all of those hours. 

These are the things I would suggest any trustees support in any public library–transparency, planning, listening to the community, listening to each other, respect for your partners inside and outside of the library, and letting the staff be amazing. Congratulations to the community for their huge success–keep it up!

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Does a Bad Board at a Public Library Really Matter?

As a wise and wonderful former colleague has said, the beautiful building at the corner of Oakton and Waukegan in suburban Niles, and all that it represents, are the work of the people who for 60 years built it, updated and renovated it, lovingly crafted collections and adapted them over time. It is a gift to today’s community from all of their predecessors who paid taxes too, and volunteered their time, and helped plan the library’s future again and again. It is the work of hundreds of dedicated librarians, clerks, shelvers, and all the jobs no one ever thinks about, over decades. It is the place where kids and coaches and their cheering families have come for over 40 years of Battle of the Books tournaments, and where literally hundreds of children have come to hear stories, sing songs, and learn from each other as well as the adults. It is where people have consulted a reference librarian who can combine information from multiple sources to build a full picture, and who have passed that knowledge to new librarians in turn. The library holds our history, our stories, our music, and our voices, and it is the legacy of all of the community who built it over time. The fiscal hawks on the board think they have a right to trash the legacy they have inherited. I hope at least one of them understands that their fiduciary responsibility is not only to today’s taxpayers but also guarding and preserving the library for future residents.

So why does the very local politics of a very diverse, very polarized library district on the border of Chicago matter? 

Public libraries matter. They support their communities in being well-educated, connected with each other, and up-to-date in a fast-changing world of technology and science. They give people opportunities to invent, create, and appreciate the writing, movie-making, and music of others. They preserve memories through things like the Veterans History Project, and they answer difficult questions even today with Google. And they are a great value–libraries have always, back to the Benjamin Franklin days, been about pooling a small amount of money to be able to share with each other.

The threat to the Niles Library is not unique. The Niles-Maine District Library Board is not alone in having members who were boosted by outside fundraisers. There are other anti-tax people out there worming their way onto library and other public boards. And some of them, it is safe to say, are not foolish and reckless like the Drblik-Makula-Hanusiak-Schoenfeldt block. For instance, a savvier, more rational Board President would not attempt to hold nine meetings in six weeks with loaded agendas each time. Smarter, smoother, more strategic anti-tax people will learn from the mistakes this crew has made, and they will be able to slide their damage in without raising a fuss. People who care about their local libraries and other boards need to be paying attention.

Fiscal conservatives vs. tax hawks. It matters because diehard anti-tax people give good old-fashioned fiscal conservatives a bad name. I confess that in my youth services days, I was offended by some of the questions about spending that we got from the fiscal conservatives on the board. My skin was too thin and I took it too personally, and I got a little huffy. Now I have a much greater appreciation for people who are willing to take the time to understand the budget and spending, and who ask thoughtful questions. I said after the board orientation tours that Treasurer Joe Makula took twice that it was clear that he was going to remember it very differently because he wasn’t listening to the answers he got, especially if they didn’t fit with what he already decided in advance. The tax hawks are squeezing the intelligent fiscal conservatives off of boards, and that’s a shame.

Communities matter. Toward the end of the pandemic, I did a community survey so we could hear from them what they anticipated they needed from the library in a post-pandemic world. Results were very positive, both about what they currently use the library for and what they planned to use it for in the future. They did not express the need or desire for the library’s services, programs, collections, and staff to be cut. Boards need to listen to the community first, THEN take action. This board’s budget cuts were delivered within one week of the new board being seated. And now, they most definitely are hearing from the community, and it seems to surprise them.

The lives of individual community members matter. Communities are made up of individuals, and individuals matter. I heard such poignant stories during the pandemic of people feeling the pain of missing the library for so many reasons. Their stories varied, but the underlying theme was that lonely people valued the library even more than others, and they were ecstatic when we reopened in person. Now with the hours being cut and fewer staff available to help them, it’s hard to see how the changes won’t have an impact on individuals.

Who are some of the individuals who will suffer? The children in the preschools and daycares who will no longer get a visit from Ms. April matter, and so do the big kids, the teens, and their teachers. A visit from an energetic school liaison is a breath of fresh air for a classroom of kids, and their enthusiasm about books and learning is contagious. The residents in assisted living or elder care facilities matter, and the connections the outreach staff have made with them are deeply felt on both sides. The residents who try to come use the library because they don’t have a printer or they need a tax form or they need a place to study and find the library closed are important. The people we were under-serving before matter, too. Each of those people who will miss out in the future matters. The world will be different in ways we will never know because of those missed opportunities.

Some of the damage cannot be undone. Library staff members matter. The heartless way that the NMDL staff are being treated by disrespectful board members is horrifying to me. The tax hawks are small in number but noisy, and keep reproaching the board for not having fired anyone during the pandemic. I think they mostly do know perfectly well that the staff were working hard to deliver books and programs and computer help through the pandemic, but they like to talk about staff getting paid for doing nothing. I’ll be honest–they disgust me. They are putting the remaining staff through a horrible time of uncertainty, knowing that if Joe and Carolyn and Suzanne and Olivia get their way, a significant number of them will lose their jobs, or their health insurance, or both. They are hearing that Joe and Carolyn are sure that the staff is doing a terrible job and they know much better how to improve the way the library is run. They look forward to a grim new reality, and as of this writing (one month after my forced resignation) they have no director to encourage, support, and guide them. So of course, some of them will leave, and not come back. Library staff members at every level served during the past year with compassion and steadiness at libraries throughout the country, and certainly at NMDL. They should be getting to greet the returning library users and the newcomers to a fresh new lineup of programs and materials, and instead they are being forced to reduce hours, reduce programs, reduce service.

Board members need to care. It matters because a library or other civic board needs to be made up of people who care about the institution. The situation at NMDL right now is like someone accepting a seat on the board of the Chicago Symphony and deciding that the orchestra doesn’t need cellos or bassoons any more. It’s unethical to accept a seat on the board of an organization you don’t support, and even more unethical to campaign on the improvements you will make when you intend the opposite. Library trustees are supposed to be advocates for the institution they have sworn to protect. The sign of whether these trustees have done their jobs faithfully will be if the numbers of cardholders, check-outs, program attendance, visitor count, computer use, questions answered all rise instead of falling under their care. Sadly, I think the bad trustees hope for the opposite, to justify making additional cuts later.

Things look grim…but they don’t have to. The community, the library world, and now even outsiders have their eyes on the situation at the Niles-Maine District Library. Three excellent trustees are fiercely advocating for their beloved library, and all they need is one more to join them and work toward reassuring the staff, the community, and the rest of the world that the residents of Niles and unincorporated Maine Township care about lifelong learning and appreciate the gift they have inherited at the corner of Oakton and Waukegan.

Next up: What happens next?

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The Sheep and the “Friends”

The situation at the Niles-Maine District Library is dire. The director (me) was forced to resign three weeks ago, and an interim director has not yet been appointed. The next scheduled board meeting is the public hearing on the budget, on Tuesday, July 20th at 6:30 p.m, and while I certainly encourage stakeholders to come and tell the Board what they think, trustees have not shown much sign of listening so far. The following night the Board will vote on the final Budget & Appropriations Ordinance. They are allowed to make last-minute changes, and I would be stunned if they don’t cut more services and staff, though they also seem perfectly happy to spend spend spend on consultants and lawyers. So let me introduce the other two members of the Board’s voting block of four, which I think of as The Sheep.

First, we have Suzanne (aka Susan and Sue) Schoenfeldt. I confess that I am shocked that she turned into such a library opponent, because she and her children used the library all the time, and I fondly remember her two daughters in various kids’ programs. I remember learning a very long, lovely Christmas story (Starmother’s Youngest Child) to tell to Mrs. Schoenfeldt’s Girl Scout troop at St. John Brebeuf when she asked the Children’s Department for a storyteller. But apparently the years of listening to fellow SJB church goer Carolyn Drblik’s negative interpretation of what is happening at the library turned her opinion around. 

She has almost never spoken in the Board meetings–when anyone asks a question, she automatically turns to Joe to hear what he has decided about things like whether the library would participate in the Fourth of July Parade. (She did not march with the library, by the way.) And I don’t think it’s a coincidence that President Drblik seated herself between the two sheep, and put herself first in the voting order to make sure that they would know how they are supposed to vote. Suzanne spoke several times in the Candidate Forum about the importance of “diversity,” but it must have just been the talking point someone suggested to her, because she hasn’t once mentioned it again, not even in the context of some 15 hours of budget discussions. Also in the Candidate Forum she suggested that the library needs a Citizens Book Selection Committee, and I’m going to guess that most readers just felt a cold chill run up their spines at that phrase.

Then there is the other sheep, Olivia Hanusiak. Olivia got the highest number of votes in the election (though still only 1,543 with a total turnout of 8.14% of the registered voters in the district). And I must admit that I really liked her when she came for her orientation. On a board where the median age is probably over 60, Olivia is in her mid-20s, and she reminisced fondly about Battle of the Books, summer reading, and volunteering at the library. She was alert and engaged in the tour, and if she wanted to be a good trustee, I think she could be. Unfortunately, she doesn’t seem to want to be a trustee at all. Rumor had it that it was her father, Chris Hanusiak (Niles Township Republican Committeeman and former Village of Niles Trustee) who persuaded/forced her to run. For reasons too complicated to get into here, they probably told Olivia that she could step down, but the way it worked out she is stuck in a role she doesn’t want. She has missed some meetings, and when she is there she looks absolutely miserable. 

So where do the Friends fit in? Olivia’s dad Chris Hanusiak has been the President of the Friends of the Library for around ten years. Many libraries rely on their Friends groups to volunteer and advocate on behalf of their library, and that is very much what the Niles Friends group once did. They were a key part of the library for many years, running the book sales and other fundraising events. They also saw their role as supporting the staff, and hosted lunches, even dressing up like Santa and Mrs. Claus and handing out presents. But in more recent times, the Friends group seemed like they existed mostly for political purposes, relying entirely on funds raised by staff and volunteers and not doing any of the work of the now continuous booksale. Much of their discussion centered around their annual holiday party at the White Eagle, and planning excursions for themselves. 

Over time, and after consulting with the library’s attorneys, the Board decided that the library should stop transferring the book sale funds to the Friends. The Friends still exist, and still hold around $15,000 in funds that are intended to benefit the library, but if Chris and his cronies are still meeting, they are not announcing the meetings publicly. Needless to say, this is probably one big reason why Chris wanted his daughter Olivia to become a library trustee. Do not be surprised if Carolyn Drblik adds something Friends-related to the July agenda.

Here’s what I don’t understand. The voting block of four is getting a tremendous amount of pushback from the community. As Director, I must have received around 150 emails with titles like “Please stop the corrupt contract,” regarding the hiring of the videographer to audit the library’s operations. Social media has been filled with angry posts and statements naming these trustees by name. What kind of a dad puts his young daughter in the position of having her rather distinct name and words like “corrupt,” and “cruel” associated all over the internet and in the newspaper? How is that going to look when she decides to move out and the landlord is doing a search on her name, or when she applies for her next job? What about the search hits that will come up when the Attorney General starts looking into all of the improperly declined FOIA requests and OMA violations? The negative publicity for the board members (and sadly, for the library) is just beginning.

What Olivia Hanusiak and Suzanne Schoenfeldt are doing is cruel and bizarre, and makes no sense, to be sure. They are rightly being associated with their deeds, and as each board meeting goes by there is a greater record of the circuses the board meetings have become. The record shows that Suzanne and Olivia come into each meeting with the instructions for how to vote on each item, and that’s what they do. But following orders does not make you any less responsible for your actions. They voted for a tentative budget that will result in fired staff members, slashed hours, reduced programs, and elimination of almost all outreach, because they are believing Carolyn Drblik and Joe Makula’s continuous misstatements. If they want to stop damaging their community, they should resign, and let people who actually care about the community have their seats.

Next up: Why do the problems of a suburban library matter?

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A Disastrous Board President

Board President Carolyn Drblik at the Niles-Maine District Library is not my favorite person. You can tell that because the very first thing I did upon being forced to resign is block her in my phone so I never had to see that toxic name pop up again.  I could be mean-spirited and mention a lot of very unflattering things that reflect her general poor judgment and some life choices that backfired badly…but it’s really not the point. The point is that she is on the verge of wrecking a beloved cultural institution in a community that desperately needs it. So I will stick to the relevant facts that explain what motivates her.

The first thing to know about Carolyn Drblik is that she has been convinced since she began as trustee eight years ago that things are terribly wrong at the Niles Public Library District/Niles-Maine District Library. She has been certain from the beginning that we are somewhere on the continuum between very stupid to very corrupt. This has required her to disregard all of the evidence, which includes the Board seeing every payment made to every vendor every month; full financial reports presented to the Board every month; a glowing annual audit ever since Greg Pritz took over; scrupulously maintained internal controls between the Business Manager, Business Coordinator, Executive Director, and Board; the opportunity to question every expense, and so on. It led her to file dozens of time-eating FOIA requests for documents, often for documents that don’t exist since the misdeeds she was looking for don’t exist.

Carolyn spent her first two years as Board Treasurer, and I always remember her triumphantly waving a check in the air as if to say, “Aha! I found it!” It turned out to be the monthly fee for offsite document storage at Iron Mountain. It suited the purposes of the Board President at that time to have Carolyn take up lots of staff time by requesting lots of reports, so she asked for things like a calendar of the paid time off for all of the managers and supervisors, which took many hours to put together in her requested format and which was never referred to again. She was certain that the library was being cheated, and when it turned out everything was documented and appropriate, she just ignored it and tried again.

She was sure that the staffing levels at the library were all wrong and the taxpayers were being bilked, so she and her buddy Danette insisted on doing a staffing and operations survey in 2015. Her original choice for consulting firm was forced out by the Board President (hoping for a lean consultant instead) but they finally agreed upon the consultants used by the Village. Yet when the results of the Matrix staffing and operations study came back, she was again disappointed and has never referred to the survey again. That’s because when they compared us to seven similar libraries, we were about in the middle on everything—not the highest, not the lowest. Kind of like Niles itself.

Later, when that Board President and his sidekick were not reelected, Carolyn and Danette were no longer in a voting block and Danette stepped down in preference to her role as Village Trustee, setting off six long years for Carolyn of being in the minority. (This was despite the fact that in my experience, most of the library trustees are fairly conservative economically.) She fought back by revealing information given in closed session (violating the Open Meetings Act) and writing periodic letters to the editor bashing the Business Manager and me as any good boss would do. Though running for a second term in office herself, Carolyn helped Joe Makula with his unlawful petition limiting library trustees to one term, and continued to try to figure out just what nefarious activities we were up to.

Because Carolyn was on the losing side of so many votes, it was impossible for her to take any pride in the library’s accomplishments as most trustees would. I suspect that was in part because her circle of super-conservative friends were counting on her to hold the line on painting the picture that “spending at the library is out of control!” So if we were designated one of America’s Star Libraries year after year, that just meant that we were trying to do too much. If we did what we called the “Reimagination Project” and made processes more efficient and added the cutting edge Creative Studio with a great staff to help low-tech residents with the necessities of a high-tech world, she was unable to brag about it because that would mean we were doing something right. Over the past 8 years there have been hundreds of examples.

So, here we are. Carolyn pretends to herself that now that she is Board President, she can finally discover what terrible things we have been up to. To aid her in that effort, she forced through the appointment of a completely unqualified friend of hers who not incidentally campaigned for her three new voting block members. People have focused on the IT aspect of the work he was charged with, but in fact his role is to examine all of the library’s operations—in other words, everything. I believe this in part because after many years of FOIA requests she never FOIA’d an IT equipment inventory. So that’s not where her attention really is. As others have speculated, her crony will no doubt will suggest what she already decided she wants, and more foolish changes will be implemented.

Carolyn is also running the board by trying to force every motion through with her four votes and not giving the other three trustees the relevant information in advance, causing them to walk out of the 9th board meeting in 6 weeks. She is exclusively using a private email account to conduct all library business, not turning over the FOIAable documents from that account, and not turning in relevant documents to the library to keep on file. The more information she has, the more paranoid she becomes about protecting that information from, you know, the Board. The staff. The residents. The taxpayers.

One nice thing I can say about Carolyn is that I know her to be someone who cares about social justice. Everything she is doing now, and everyone she is working with now are completely out of sync with any kind of social justice goals. Joe Makula made that very clear with his white supremacist views on serving a diverse community in the candidate forum. I can only believe that what she’s getting from her circle in the way of approval, support, and feeling important and powerful outweighs everything else she believes in. Personally, I think the Mayor should remove her from the Community Relations Commission given her hypocritical behavior toward much of the community. And by the way, the Attorney General should be investigating her constant texting during meetings (I heard a lot of pings behind my shoulder where former Maine Township trustee Carrabotta was sitting) as well as her making calls to her puppet master during the four-hour executive session when he was not elected to the Board and has not been hired as a library attorney. Again, such hypocrisy.

Carolyn, because she cannot believe that anything negative that happens could possibly be attributed to her missteps, blames “negative” comments for spoiling the roll-out of the plans she and Joe have come up with. She can’t understand that simultaneously cutting hours, firing staff, making the librarians responsible for cleaning and shelving (in a very un-ergonomic way from 2 foot tall rolling bins), and not letting staff go out in the community any more are all inherently extremely unpopular proposals. She can’t believe that aligning her interests with Joe’s means she is being tied to all of his crackpot, unworkable plans. Though she knows perfectly well that schools don’t have school buses sitting around waiting for field trips, and assisted living facilities don’t have bored staff who are standing around waiting to replace the outreach staff, she pretends to believe it’s a good idea to keep in Joe’s good graces, so of course it has to be someone else’s fault that they are completely losing the PR battle.

I’ll gladly take some credit for that. I am continuing to beat up on these people via social media because getting rid of me was just the beginning. There is no way I can stand by silently watching as they fire beloved and underpaid staff, cut vital services, and try to put Niles-Maine into a death spiral.

Next time: The Sheep and the “Friends” of the Library

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Taking the Library Back to 1965

First: Apologies to those of you who follow this blog to hear about children’s librarianship. I will return to that topic soon, I promise.

A new board was seated at the Niles-Maine District Library in suburban Chicago on May 19th. The newly elected trustees formed a voting block with the previously lone tax hawk on the board, elected themselves to all of the offices, and set off on an incredibly fast-paced whirl of destruction. After eight board meetings in four weeks, totaling 27 hours, I had the choice of resigning with a settlement, or being fired. You can guess which one I chose.

Part of me would like to turn the corner and move on, but the other part of me knows that I am uniquely positioned to shed light on this dire situation.

Let’s start with Board Treasurer Joe Makula, since he seems to have all of the authority in this group. A Trump donor who has apparently never previously run for office, Makula is working with a group of similarly-minded individuals. You can’t spend more than a few minutes with any of them without their setting off on a rant about Illinois taxes. As far as I can tell, they are working toward taking elected seats on the boards of smaller taxing bodies in Illinois with a goal of gutting the institutions from the inside. Public libraries probably look like a particularly good target to them, with their goal of educating and empowering people. Rumor has it their group spent $15k on the small local library election.

One week after being seated, on Wednesday, May 26th, Joe delivered his plans for the library, using the departmental section of the lengthy budget document. I wrote that text, and unfortunately it apparently gave Joe the perfect tool for systematically targeting all of the work done by library staff that he doesn’t believe in. He took his pen and struck out:

*children’s librarians visiting the schools, preschools, and daycare centers

*children’s librarians working with teachers by pulling classroom materials for their students…you know, the students that are children of taxpayers? Them.

*outreach assistants delivering materials to the homebound–we would use imaginary volunteers instead.

*outreach assistants delivering old copies of books to supplement the libraries of nursing homes and assisted living facilities, as well as delivering newer materials to individuals living there. You know, taxpayers.

*the overnight cleaning crew, saying that the librarians can do the cleaning between customers at the desk. Says Joe firmly, “they only get about 3 questions a day anyway.” 

*the annual staff day and all other forms of continuing education, as well as paid dues to the professional organizations that sponsor continuing education opportunities

*the Veterans History Breakfast, an annual event thanking our local vets who participated in recording their memories as part of the Library of Congress’s Veterans History Project. Says Joe, “They can pay for their own breakfast.” 

I could go on and on but you get the picture. This was followed up by a document where Joe decided how much to lower the staff payroll lines in the budget going department by department. He slashed $150k from the Adult Services librarian line, for instance, with no explanation whatsoever. He mercilessly cut the salaries of the lowest paid members of the staff too, in the Patron Services Department. Cut-cut-cut.

He decided that we would continue with the pandemic hours instituted when the staff was divided into two teams, with one team working inside the building and the other team working remotely, slashing hours from 70/week in keeping with the surrounding libraries all the way down to 54. Says Joe, “People use Amazon now–they aren’t coming back.”

So there are two points to all of this slashing. The first is the cruelty, to try to demoralize the staff. I’m sure they hope that the award-winning staff will pour out the door. The second is to put the library into a death spiral. Here’s how that works:

  1. Cut staff, hours, and programs
  2. Restrict library use to residents only (pretty sure this is coming next)
  3. Complain that the library card numbers are down
  4. Complain that the circulation (“borrowings,” as Joe calls them) are down
  5. Complain that program attendance is down
  6. Conclude that all of these downward trends indicate clearly that the library is no longer needed
  7. Make more cuts

I believe Joe’s goal is to reduce the size of the library staff and budget by half by the time his 2-year-term is up. I fully anticipate additional budget cuts at the July board meeting before the final budget is passed. I wouldn’t be surprised if they are shooting for $1,000,000.

Meanwhile Joe’s message gets faithfully reinforced at each meeting by a local lawyer who makes comments at each meeting. My husband refers to him as “The Blowhard,” but I think of him as “The Gaslighter.” At each meeting he pretends to believe that the Board can make lots of budget cuts without affecting service, collections, or programs at all. “They’ll tell you it will destroy the library. It’s a LIE!” he roared recently. Don’t be surprised if suddenly he is hired by this new Board, who seem to like nothing more than rewarding their cronies.

Next up: What the heck is Carolyn Drblik doing?

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Opinionated for 25 Years

There aren’t many things that our newest Supreme Court Justice and I have in common, but I will admit to one: I, too, have held onto many calendars over the years.

1994 calendar cover And I stumbled across this one today, and casually opening it up, I found an interesting entry: On August 3, 1994, I started my reviewing career.

1994 augustA few days before, I was talking with my closest friend, Jan. Both of us were stay-at-home moms after beginning our careers at the Chicago Public Library. She commented, “You know, you should do something more literary, like Roger Sutton.” We had both known Roger at CPL. And the very next day, Roger Sutton called and said he was looking for a writer for the Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books, and our former boss had recommended me. Never before or since has something so odd happened to me, but I was delighted to make an appointment. He gave me three books to review as a trial, and I began what has been an almost entirely wonderful part of my life.

At BCCB, the standards were high, set by Zena Sutherland and Betsy Hearne–no using unspecific words like “colorful,” “charming,” or “beautiful.” No taking cheap shots to look smart. And the process there of going in person once a week and passing reviews and books around the table for critiquing was a time of my life that I look back on as a sort of Camelot. Working with a small group of really sharp and witty people was tough and incredibly fun, and if my mistakes like using a dangling modifier were laughed at mercilessly, I learned. Writing 7 or more book reviews a week challenged me, and today when so much of my reading time is eaten up online, I can hardly believe the amount of reading I used to do. BCCB remains a frank and thoughtful source of book reviews today.

Once the Bulletin moved out of the city, I began reviewing for Booklist, the review journal of the American Library Association. In the Books for Youth section, I continued writing many reviews a week, and during the fall got to go in for weekly meetings to discuss the year’s best books for Editors’ Choice. I got to meet editorial assistant John Green, and remember well when I first started reading the ARC for Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, realizing quickly that it was something very special. Hazel, Ilene, Stephanie, Sally, and Carolyn were and are such wise women, each great writers in their own right.

Eventually I followed Roger to The Horn Book Magazine where I have remained for almost 20 years. Roger’s deft editorial hand and his ability to keep Horn Book formal but fresh have kept me on my toes. The number of reviewers has recently greatly expanded, allowing a wider number of voices to be heard, and having the chance to weigh in and listen to comments on what should be starred each month keeps widening my perspective.

The advent of online reviewing has changed the field. Anyone can start a blog like this one and start opining away. But review editors like other editors in publishing help ensure that reviews are fair, facts are checked, and prose is polished. It’s been a huge privilege to write for each of these journals (as well as Kirkus and Reading Today) and I will always be grateful for the editors, fellow reviewers, book selectors, and most of all for the authors and illustrators that keep children’s literature such a vibrant and ever-changing world.


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