New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio on August 12 appointed Jukay Hsu, founder of the community development organization Coalition for Queens (C4Q), to the Queens Borough Public Library (QL) Board of Trustees. The appointment fills one of eight positions left vacant since July 23, when de Blasio dismissed two of the library’s trustees and Queens Borough President (QBP) Melinda Katz dismissed six, citing their support of embattled QL President and CEO Thomas Galante as the primary reason for their release. The move was made possible by a state law recently enacted specifically to grant them this power.
Hsu brings an impressive resume to the volunteer position. After earning a degree in economics from Harvard, he served as a U.S. Army infantry officer in Iraq, where he led the development and launch of an Iraqi-run radio station in Salah ad-Din province and was awarded a bronze star for exceptionally meritorious service against an armed enemy, according to a profile in The Atlantic. After returning home to Flushing, Queens in 2011, Hsu founded C4Q to promote development of a technology sector within the borough. In 2013, C4Q co-organized Open Tech NYC—New York City’s first conference on open source technology—and established Access Code, a technology education program that helps adults from underserved communities learn computer programming skills. Last year, at age 29, he served as the youngest member of the de Blasio administration’s transition team.
Case far from closed
Hsu’s appointment in itself is unlikely to generate controversy, but the move marks the latest development in a contentious, months-long battle between some members of the QL board and the offices of de Blasio and Katz over Galante’s continued leadership of the library.
According to the QL Board of Trustees by-laws, the mayor and QBP appoint trustees to serve terms of five years, and can only be dismissed for failing to attend at least three consecutive meetings, or by a two-thirds vote of all members of the board.
These recent dismissals of trustees were enabled by the passage in June of the new state law—authored in part by Katz, and sponsored by Queens State Senator Michael Gianaris and Assemblyman Jeffrion Aubry—that reduced the terms of appointments from five years to two, and gave the mayor and QBP the power to dismiss trustees at will. Within a month, these powers were exercised to force out supporters of Galante, who has been the subject of a series of articles in the New York Daily News that questioned his $392,000 salary, his side-work as a consultant, and the use of $140,000 in capital funds for renovation’s at the main QL branch in Jamaica, Queens, including $27,000 for an outdoor deck adjoining Galante’s office. Revelations that a contractor that Galante may have known through his consulting work had also been hired by QL have led the Federal Bureau of Investigation and NYC’s Department of Investigation to conduct a joint probe into how QL awards construction contracts.
These developments led to calls for Galante’s dismissal and requests for QL to allow city auditors to inspect records on the library’s use of private donations, but about half of the board balked. The board, thus far, has not handed over those specific spending records or dismissed Galante, but the new law allowed Katz and de Blasio simply to remove the board members who voted against these moves.
In an earlier interview, Queens Library spokesperson Joanne King said that the new law severely compromises QL’s ability to operate independently.
“In terms of independence of governance, it is extremely threatening, because the board will now be subject to political control,” she said.
On August 1, the six trustees dismissed by Katz filed a lawsuit in Brooklyn federal court challenging the constitutionality of their removal, seeking to have their positions reinstated and have the law overturned, and seeking unspecified monetary damages from Katz, whom the suit accuses of “malicious and punitive conduct in publicly smearing plaintiffs to aggrandize herself.”
The first judge set to hear the case—the Hon. Roslynn Mauskopf of the U.S. District Court, Eastern District of New York—on August 11 recused herself due to a longstanding relationship with former Federal Judge Barbara Jones. This, in turn, led to the revelation that Jones had been hired by QL in July to conduct an internal investigation of whether a trustee had been leaking information about confidential board deliberations to Katz. QL officials suspected that Katz’s office was then mischaracterizing this information and feeding stories to the Daily News, according to court papers obtained by the Times Ledger of Queens.
On August 12, the former trustees were dealt a setback when District Court Judge James Orenstein recommended against granting a preliminary injunction that would have reinstated them to their positions while their case was heard.