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.
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!