September 29, 2014

Borough President, New York Mayor Granted New Powers over Queens Public Library

Queens Central Library Borough President, New York Mayor Granted New Powers over Queens Public Library

Queens Central Library

This story was updated on July 23 to include information about trustees being removed.

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. The bill, S-6893, passed the state senate by an overwhelming 59-1 margin on June 19. One month after the bill’s passage, on July 23, the offices of New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and Queens Borough President Melinda Katz exercised this new power, sending notifications of dismissal to eight Queens Library trustees.

The Daily News reports that six of these trustees were appointed by previous Queens Borough presidents, while two had been appointed by previous mayors. One additional trustee was reported to have resigned.

The letters sent to these trustees specifically cite their earlier votes to retain Galante as the reason for their dismissal, according to the News. Under the Queens Library Board of Trustees bylaws, the 10 remaining trustees are sufficient to constitute a quorum, and Katz told the Daily News that she hopes these remaining board members convene to fire Galante.

In an email to LJ, the Mayor’s office did not mention Galante, instead contending that these trustees had been insufficiently transparent.

“We expect that individuals responsible for public funds ensure they are allocated wisely, act in a responsible manner, and protect the public interest. In this case, the job of the Board of Trustees is to safeguard the library’s resources for its educational mission, and some of them weren’t doing that up to the standards the public deserves,” wrote Marti Adams, deputy press secretary for the de Blasio administration. “That’s why the administration felt it was appropriate to remove these individuals from the Board of Trustees. Queens residents deserve a strong library system that is transparent and fulfills its educational purpose, and it is the city’s responsibility to protect the integrity of this important cultural and educational institution. The administration will soon appoint a new member to the Board of Trustees.”

Katz also issued a statement, contending that “this is a new day for the Queens Public library. Taxpayers need to know that the Library is moving in the direction of transparency and responsibility for the education of our children. Removal of the eight Trustees today was achieved through great collaboration between city and state governments. I want to commend all of the elected officials involved, including Assembly member Jeff Aubry, Senator Gianaris, Governor Cuomo and Mayor de Blasio, for acting quickly to provide much needed reform to the Board of the Queens Library.”

QPL officials continued to voice support for their board, including the dismissed trustees.

“Throughout the history of the Queens Borough Public Library, the people of Queens have benefitted enormously from a highly committed library Board of Trustees whose leadership has helped keep libraries open and free,” QPL Communications Director Joanne King wrote in a statement to the press. “They have helped make Queens Library a recognized national model of excellence. The Board consists of volunteer high-profile professionals and community activists who make time out of their busy schedules. Every one of the tens of millions who has enriched his life through Queens Library owes them thanks for their service.”

The office of Queens Borough President Melinda Katz did not immediately respond to LJ’s request for comment.

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 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.”

The bill, S-6893, passed the state senate by an overwhelming 59-1 margin on June 19. One month after the bill’s passage, on July 23, the offices of New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and Queens Borough President Melinda Katz exercised this new power, sending notifications of dismissal to eight Queens Library trustees. The Daily News reports that six of these trustees were appointed by previous Queens Borough presidents, while two had been appointed by previous mayors. One additional trustee was reported to have resigned.

The letters sent to these trustees specifically cite their earlier votes to retain Galante as the reason for their dismissal, according to the News. Under the Queens Library Board of Trustees bylaws, the 10 remaining trustees are sufficient to constitute a quorum, and Queens Borough President Melinda Katz told the Daily News that she hoped these remaining board members would convene to fire Galante. Instead, the six trustees dismissed by Katz filed an appeal for reinstatement, and on August 1 filed a lawsuit against Katz, State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman and the state of New York. The suit seeks to have the new state law overturned, and seeks unspecified monetary damages from Katz, due to “the egregious nature of the constitutional violations” and Katz’s “malicious and punitive conduct in publicly smearing plaintiffs to aggrandize herself,” according to the suit.

In an email to LJ, the Mayor’s office did not mention Galante, instead contending that the trustees appointed by prior administrations had been insufficiently transparent.“We expect that individuals responsible for public funds ensure they are allocated wisely, act in a responsible manner, and protect the public interest. In this case, the job of the Board of Trustees is to safeguard the library’s resources for its educational mission, and some of them weren’t doing that up to the standards the public deserves,” wrote Marti Adams, deputy press secretary for the de Blasio administration. ”That’s why the administration felt it was appropriate to remove these individuals from the Board of Trustees. Queens residents deserve a strong library system that is transparent and fulfills its educational purpose, and it is the city’s responsibility to protect the integrity of this important cultural and educational institution. The administration will soon appoint a new member to the Board of Trustees.”

QPL officials continued to voice support for their board, including the dismissed trustees.”Throughout the history of the Queens Borough Public Library, the people of Queens have benefitted enormously from a highly committed library Board of Trustees whose leadership has helped keep libraries open and free,” QPL Communications Director Joanne King wrote in a statement to the press. “They have helped make Queens Library a recognized national model of excellence. The Board consists of volunteer high-profile professionals and community activists who make time out of their busy schedules. Every one of the tens of millions who has enriched his life through Queens Library owes them thanks for their service.”The office of Queens Borough President Melinda Katz did not immediately respond to LJ’s request for comment.

Ian Chant About Ian Chant

Ian Chant is the Associate News Editor of LJ.

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