November 17, 2017

New Orleans Public Library: Dismay, Debate Over Organizational Changes

By Norman Oder

  • Critics say board concentrated power
  • Chair and COO took study trip without telling director
  • Mayfield says library needed shaking up

LJ’s October 2 coverage of the resignation of New Orleans Public Library (NOPL) director Donna Schremser, along with the departure of three top administrators plus the foundation director, was only the tip of the iceberg.

 In a lengthy article published December 18, the New Orleans Times-Picayune suggested that NOPL Chairman Irvin Mayfield Jr., a 30-year-old star jazz trumpeter who’s helped produce an ambitious and much-praised master plan, has also alienated many with overly aggressive changes and favoritism. For one thing, the NOPL Foundation is now being led on a volunteer interim basis by Mayfield’s friend, Ronald Markham, who is CEO of Mayfield’s orchestra. And all the board votes have been unanimous.

Mayfield and Chief Operating Officer (COO) Rica Trigs—the de facto director, who has a degree in urban studies but not an LIS degree—defended themselves vigorously, saying they were trying to improve a hidebound institution. Indeed, Mayfield said he’d prefer all library leadership to be unclassified, at-will employees. 

One board member said that, after Hurricane Katrina, Trigs “was the only one who knew where anything was.” (A commenter self-identified as “ciscoavaya” on the newspaper’s web site disagrees, citing several staff members by name for personal initiative bravery in harsh conditions.)

While LJ reported on the departure of several top administrators, the newspaper describes how the library business manager was fired, but the failure to fill the position led to “a pileup of unpaid bills that has undone relations with several vendors.”

Director difficulties
The newspaper provides very different perspectives on the experience of Schremser, hired last year to be library director. Schremser said she was quickly marginalized when the board named Trigs COO, then made her essentially co-manager of the system with Schremser, an unprecedented structure..

“The executive leadership team is an end-run around the library administration,” former manager Linda Marshall Hill told the newspaper. “When I saw my two fellow bureau chiefs excluded, I just couldn’t live with it.”

Mayfield said Schremser was “out to lunch,” underperforming, which Schremser denied; he says she resigned, while she says she was threatened with firing. Two former managers said Mayfield bypassed Schremser; for example, before the restructuring, Mayfield and Trigs visited the Miami-Dade Public Library System to study best practices, but didn’t tell the director beforehand.

Lack of transparency
The newspaper noted that, while the organizational shakeup came from a consultant’s report, Trigs wouldn’t release it because it was paid for with private funds. 

And the newspaper said it “took a month of repeated requests and a threat of legal action” to get the board and the city attorney’s office to provide meeting minutes

Reaction
Times-Picayune columnist Lolis Eric Elie, writing the next day, praised Mayfield for fundraising efforts and his ambitions for the system but acknowledged that the mayor’s office “took weeks longer to respond to the [newspaper’s records] request than is allowed by law.”

Carol Billings, former president of the Louisiana Library Association, was indignant, writing in a letter to the newspaper: “Yet, ignoring the city charter, the board appears to have fallen under the spell of its chairman, Irvin Mayfield, and his school chums, who are now running the show.”

Two librarians, William Peters and Carla Clark, in a letter wrote that “library trustees are rarely charged with the type of day-to-day library micromanagement described in this story.

Commenting on the newspaper web site, a former staff member of the foundation, self-identified as “milwnative,” offered a mixed assessment, agreeing with the “contrived departures” of four managers but “outraged” by the loss of two others. A library employee, self-identified as “newintheno,” lamented the “lack of willingness to endorse change in this city.” Another  librarian, self-identified as “movedon2nm,” “would like to see Mayor Nagin get away with appointing an MLS librarian to the top ‘urban planning’ position in New Orleans.” One subtext all around: the library system remains underfunded.

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