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?