New legislation passed by the New York state House and Senate and signed by Governor Andrew Cuomo gave the Mayor of New York and Queens Borough President new authority to appoint and eliminate members of the Queens Public Library (QPL) Board of Trustees. The new law is sponsored by Queens State Senator Michael Gianaris and Assemblyman Jeffrion Aubry and authored in part by Borough President Melinda Katz. It is widely seen as a response to the fact that calls for more oversight and transparency from the board over questions about the compensation of QPL CEO Thomas Galante and his relationship with contractors doing construction work for the library, which had been largely ignored by the current board.
The bill, S-6893, passed the state senate by an overwhelming 59-1 margin on June 19. Prior to its signing by Cuomo and passage into law, though, the current Board of Trustees attempted to schedule an emergency meeting on June 26 that could have changed the terms of Galante’s contract, which netted him $392,000 in compensation in 2013. The New York Daily News reported that the meeting would have seen board members consider a proposal to remove Galante as CEO and president. Instead, Galante would have become an independent consultant for the library system for the next two years. Working on an as-needed basis, Galante reportedly would have made more than $800,000 in compensation in the next two years. According to NY1, the library characterized the Daily News report as ‘inaccurate,’ adding “a confidential draft of a proposed agreement was provided to the members of the Board as the first step in an effort to begin a conversation on the conditions of a possible transition of leadership at the Library.”
Galante has been at the center of controversy swirling around the Queens Library since the Daily News reported that he held a lucrative second job at a Long Island school district and has a personal relationship with a contractor who has done significant work on Queens libraries. That relationship is currently the subject of a federal investigation, and the past several months have seen numerous calls by local politicians for Galante to step down from his post.
John Hyslop, president of Local 1321, the Queens Library Guild, told LJ that even though it didn’t go through, the proposal raises serious questions about the state of the current board of trustees.“ The announcement of this consultant plan is gross negligence, and 1321 was deeply concerned that the Board of Trustees would go through with it,” Hyslop said, especially in light of the system’s refusal to open the books on its private donations to city auditors, a call that has left more than $20 million in funding from the city of New York frozen and unavailable to the library.
Once the proposed meeting became public knowledge, it was cancelled following protests by Katz, as well as the office of New York City Public Advocate Leticia James and state Attorney General Eric Schneiderman. “I am getting tired of calling the behavior of this Board ‘an outrage’,” said Katz in a statement condemning the proposed meeting, which she went on to call “another painful example of how several of the Trustees of this Board have consistently blocked any sort of good governance or increased oversight reforms.”
James Sheehan, Charities Bureau Chief in the Office of the NY Attorney General, complained of the short notice given with regard to the meeting, which was announced less than 48 hours before it was scheduled to take place. In a letter to Board Chari Gabriel Taussig, Sheehan wrote that “we do not believe that the trustees can fulfill their fiduciary duties to the library by voting on the proposed agreement, which we are concerned provides terms that may be unfair to the Library, on such short notice.”
Gabriel Taussig, chairman of the board of trustees, told the New York Times that his decision to cancel the meeting had nothing to do with the bill or pressure from public officials. He said he did not know if the board would go forward with the vote later and that the meeting had not been rescheduled.
The cancellation of the meeting provided time for Governor Cuomo to sign the Queens Library reform bill into law, seemingly taking the consultant proposal off the table. In a statement, Cuomo told LJ that the legislation was necessary because “those entrusted to serve the public have a responsibility to act in the public’s best interest. It’s clear that wasn’t happening here and additional accountability was needed.”
Queens Library spokesperson Joanne King condemned the new legislation, telling LJ in an interview that “In terms of independence of governance, it is extremely threatening, because the board will now be subject to political control.”
While Hyslop welcomed the passage of the reform bill, he shared some of King’s concerns about its implications. “Local 1321 is very encouraged by the reform legislation that provides more transparency and good governance on the Queens Library Board of Trustees. We have some reservations, being that politicians have more power over the Board of Trustees now,” he said. “However, these trustees have not lived up to their fiduciary responsibility, and the consequences that will have are unknown.”
Asked to predict what the new legislation meant for Queens Library, Hyslop predicted that Katz would soon begin individual interviews with current board members to determine their feelings on the current state of Queens Library and learn whether she thinks they’re suitable to remain on the Board. That could be bad news for Galante’s future with the system, he said. “I imagine one of the qualifications she’s looking for will be asking for Galante to go.”