September 15, 2014

Update: Douglas Co. Commissioners Take Greater Control of Library Board

In pursuit of what they view as greater accountability, the Douglas County, CO, board of commissioners is making a bid to take over the naming of library trustees.

Since the mid-1990s, new trustees have been nominated by the existing trustees. The commissioners ratify the appointment.

In the Castle Rock News-Press, the Commissioners have called the current process unique in Colorado, but according to Megan McDermott, Assistant Director of Communications, Colorado Department of Education, that’s not the case. “Many public libraries in Colorado have a similar set up of an appointment process overseen by the board and approved by the county or other governing body such as mayor,” McDermott told LJ, based on information shared by the state library, “How much the BoCC in each county chooses to exercise its ‘ratification’ varies by district, but many use this same approach of getting one or more names for openings and seeking approval through the appropriate legislative body.”

The News-Press quoted Board Chair Jill Repella as saying, “[the library is] the second- to fourth-highest taxing entity in the county, yet the board is non-elected.” Of course, a commissioner-nominated board would also be non-elected.

A Surprising Proposal

Library district trustees first objected to the change in appointment procedures at the February 12 meeting where it was initially proposed. “I was aghast to see this resolution to pull back recommendation authority from trustees to the board of county commissioners,” said Mark Weston, library trustee. “Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater and go back to the time when the library was brand new.”

The library trustees were particularly concerned that “we did not really have any dialogue with them prior to this showing up on their agenda,” David Starck, vice president of the library board told LJ. “We found out less than a week before their meeting.”

Board to Board Dialogue

The board of county commissioners requested a meeting with the library board of trustees and tabled the agenda item until March 26. The meeting with the trustees took place on February 25.

According to notes taken at the meeting, the gist of the Commissioners’ concern is not with the specifics of the library boards’ process but that, unlike other county boards, it is not the Commissioners’ own process and that this creates ambiguity about who is ultimately responsible for any complaints or issues from tax payers.

Starck told LJ, “Their concerns were an issue of accountability at an elected official level. The board of trustees’ position was that that is already in place given the current process. The [library] board is not making the final decision, they’re just recommending. The board of trustees is open to having continued dialogue on what process it takes going forward; we would welcome a modification with greater involvement by the commissioners…Ultimately the board believes performance is equated to accountability; we have tried to put into place processes that support that level of accountability in the annual overall board appointment process.”

According to library director Jamie LaRue, that process includes annual evaluation of every board member by every other board member.

Is This About LaRue?

 According to the News-Press, while at the Febrary 12th meeting Repella had said the motion was no reflection on the library board of trustees, it turns out that at least one of the commissioners had some substantive beef with the trustees’ decisions after all.

In particular, Commissioner Jack Hilbert, District 1, who was not at the Feb. 25th meeting, told the News-Press that he objects to the high public profile of Douglas County library director Jamie LaRue, who is well known on the national library stage for his stance on ebook ownership. LaRue, as a county tax payer, is also a plaintiff in a case against the Douglas County School District’s voucher program.

“I believe that loss [in the 2008 election, when 52.6 percent of the voters said no to a library mill levy increase] was a direct reflection of how people feel about some of the activities of the director,” Hilbert said. “We have an obligation as elected officials to make sure we achieve our greater mission. The fact is that bringing up issues that irritate the community has no benefit. You cannot separate your job title from what you’re doing. If you do anything that jeopardizes our mission, we really need to bring that into question.”

According to LaRue, however, the library board hasn’t shared Hilbert’s belief in a lack of separation between LaRue’s personal and his professional lives. “I used to write newspaper columns and I would tackle all kinds of interesting issues,” LaRue told LJ. “When I would offend somebody, the board would say, ‘he’s not writing for the library, he’s writing for himself.’ They totally get the difference between an individual stand and an institutional stand.”

Mark Silverstein, Legal Director, ACLU of Colorado, told LJ, “Mr. LaRue has never involved his public position in the pending challenge to the vouchers program.” (On Feb. 28, an appeals court ruled against LaRue and the ACLU, but the case will be appealed to the Colorado Supreme Court.)

Hilbert said his opinion does not reflect the opinion of the commissioners, something which is borne out by comments by Repella and Patridge at the February 25th meeting.

When library board president Bob Morris noted that statements had been made by the Commissioners, individually, about the Library Director, Repella replied that the Commissioners as a Board have not made statements, and Repella and Partridge both said they have no issue with the director and have no complaints about him.

LaRue did not seem upset by Hilbert’s comments. “Jack is in fact a very good man, and a very good commissioner,” he told LJ. “We have disagreed with each other on many occasions, which I think both of us have enjoyed. Is he trying to put pressure on me to resign? I don’t think so.”

Next Steps

Repella told LJ, “The Board of Douglas County Commissioners will take up the topic of the Library District Board of Trustees appointment process as part of the March 26 Business Meeting, at which time they will clarify and hear public comment on the addition to the process they have in mind. Specifically, we believe the Library District’s Board of Trustee appointment process should include a link and accountability to the citizens and taxpayers of Douglas County.”

In what may be a foreshadowing of the discussion which will occur at that meeting, the library board of trustees wrote a guest column in the News-Press which addressed the accountability issue, reading in part, “Library law is explicit about accountability: it is the Trustees, and only the Trustees, who are responsible for adopting a budget, for setting policy, for evaluation of the director, for the acquisition and disposition of property, and more.”

Update

At the March 26 meeting, the County Commissioners unanimously voted to take over the process of nominating and approving library board members, according to OurColoradoNews.com. Under the new policy, two of the three commissioners will act as a nomination committee for new trustees when positions open, and a two-thirds majority vote of the commissioners will be required to approve the recommendation.

According to the article, the decision  “was preceded by nearly two hours of public comment, most of it critical…Of the handful of people who supported the commissioners’ decision, half were rejected library trustee applicants, or were related to someone who applied but was not selected as a trustee.”

The often-outspoken LaRue commented on the decision on his blog, saying in part, “My conclusion: the library board issue wasn’t about accountability. It was about partisan control.”

 

Meredith Schwartz About Meredith Schwartz

Meredith Schwartz (mschwartz@mediasourceinc.com) is Senior Editor, News and Features of Library Journal.

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Comments

  1. L. Cranston says:

    Great article! I am fortunate to live in the area (and new here), and having a card at several libraries I can only share my own love for the value I get at DCL. I think this will all work out..as the old adage goes, “if it ain’t broke…”

  2. Jeffrey Donlan says:

    Someone shouts, and the first reaction is to think there’s something to shout about. Not always so. Often not so. Douglas County Libraries governance is exceptional, and its board exemplary. There is so much sunshine on that operation, one has to wonder if THAT is what is bothering some people. It sets the bar high.

    The library is one of the best in the nation, and it has one of the lowest costs per circulation in Colorado. The only surprise in all this is the apparently vague understanding by the Douglas County Commission about how library districts in Colorado work. And they seem to have missed the point that the current arrangement (quite common in Colorado), in which the library board does the work of nominating trustees, actually reduces the commission’s responsibility while maintaining all its authority. Which is why many county commissions do it this way. What a tempest in a teapot.

  3. Who pays for the Board members’ indemnity insurance, and how directly are Board members liable? That might have some bearing on the situation.

  4. This isn’t about the library at all. The Douglas County school board became a purely partisan entity after the last election, and immediately started implementing the policies of corporate education reform, doing their best to funnel public tax money to private for-profit entities through the voucher program.
    Jamie LaRue was one of the people objecting to this, as a citizen. Now he is in the sights of the partisan County Commissioners. I predict the trustees will be replaced with un-elected partisans, who will then replace Mr. LaRue, though he is quite clearly one of the best librarians in the country. Perhaps I am too cynical, but we will see how this develops..