November 21, 2017

Westland PL Resets Staff, Leadership

William P. Faust Public Library
Photo credit: PeRshGo via Wikimedia Commons

In a series of resolutions to what looked like an impasse last spring, the William P. Faust Library of Westland, MI, on June 13 announced the reinstatement of three of five librarians who were terminated in an alleged budget adjustment in March. After a number of public clashes with supporters of the fired librarians at library board and city council meetings, the former board resigned en masse in June, along with former director Sheila Collins. Westland mayor William Wild has chosen candidates for a new board, who will be confirmed in August, and who will in turn begin proceedings to appoint a new library director.

The administrative and personnel shakeup in Westland, a suburb of Detroit, follows more than three months of contention over the library’s budget, the role of the board, and the library staff’s movement to unionize. With union representation now in place, three of the five terminated librarians have returned to work.

A CONTENTIOUS RESTRUCTURE

On March 3, five librarians from Westland’s eight-person reference department were issued notices of termination, in what was described by then–board president Mark Neal as part of the library’s move toward a zero-based budget for 2017. The library is in the process of planning a $3.2 million addition to the 24,500 square foot building, originally built in 1996, although Neal maintained that the budget adjustments had nothing to do with the expansion. In fact, the terminated positions were already in the library’s budget, thanks to a ten-year dedicated millage passed in 2012 that left the library with a $2.5 million balance.

Five days after they were terminated, head of reference Marilyn Kwik, a 12-year library employee, submitted her resignation at a board meeting.

Terminated Westland PL librarians (l-r): Alexis Tharp, Danielle Hansard, Jody Wolak, Katie Dover-Taylor, and Andrea Perez

The librarians—Katie Dover-Taylor, Danielle Hansard, Andrea Perez, Alexis Tharp, and Jody Wolak—were replaced by three part-time workers, for a projected annual savings of approximately $178,000. The new staff members, all of whom hold MLS degrees, were hired as library associates without benefits; the fired librarians were not permitted to apply for these positions.

Despite repeated attempts at unionization over the years, library workers had no union representation at the time of the firings. A 2012 vote on organizing with the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) had gone into arbitration over job titles, and when it was finally settled and organizers were ready to try again with Service Employees International Union (SEIU) after a mandatory “cooling off” period, AFSCME’s non-compete clause meant that it had to give organizers the go-ahead before they could begin the process anew.

The unionization effort was in progress by spring 2017, however, and the five terminated librarians had all been leaders of the process; the board’s original plans had been to lay off three librarians, but “once they got wind of the union activity it suddenly changed to five very quickly,” according to former Westland librarian Kristy Cooper. The five immediately filed an Unfair Labor Practice complaint alleging that the firings were done in retaliation for their union activity. Neal responded in a statement that the firings were unrelated—that the board had first heard of the unionization efforts on March 1, but the library reorganization plan had been in the works since January.

SUPPORTERS SPEAK OUT

In the wake of the firings, champions of the terminated librarians turned out consistently at library board and city council meetings. Much of the resistance was organized by Cooper. She had left the library in 2012, but was close with current staff members. “I just jumped in because I heard that this had happened, and I couldn’t believe they did this,” she told LJ. “I remembered my frustration [while at the library], always hitting the wall trying to make things better because of the…administrative practices there.”

When the five spoke out at city council or board meetings, stressed Dover-Taylor, their concerns were about working conditions for those remaining and the library’s ability to provide services to the public. “It was never about us getting our jobs back,” said Dover-Taylor. “I think the public saw that this wasn’t about us. Even though we were being painted as disgruntled ex-employees, anyone who saw us speak knew that wasn’t the truth.”

According to Cooper, among the programs cut were teen services; homebound delivery to seniors; job seekers’ labs; computer, smartphone, and tablet classes; book clubs; and the adult literacy program.

At a city council meeting held April 3, council members called for Collins to be fired and the board to be removed. They cited the decision to terminate the five librarians, as well as dissatisfaction that had been expressed among library staff at Collins’s leadership. Wild sided publicly with city council. At a closed library board meeting on April 5, the board voted unanimously to put Collins on a 32-day administrative leave in order to avoid any conflict with the unionization process. According to a Hometown Life article, Wild had asked the board to suspend Collins after expressing his unhappiness with the way she handled the reorganization. The board, however, expressed “100 percent confidence in Collins,” according to Neal.

Administrative assistant Sherri West was appointed interim assistant director, in spite of the fact that “There were two other librarians left with supervisory experience, including the head of the children’s department,” according to Cooper.

Collins, who had served as director since 2011, drew a number of negative comments from former Westland librarians during several board meetings and on the Save the Westland Library Facebook page, including allegations that she was on the premises an average of three days a week and spent much of that time sequestered in her office.

“We did a lot of things to increase the visibility of the issue and to make it clear we’re not going to let it go,” said Cooper. Save the Westland Library supporters attended the April 25 State of the City inaugural address wearing bright orange shirts that said, “I stand with Westland Librarians” and sat in a block directly in front of Wild. “The cameras were very creative at getting us out of most shots, but we were still there during some of them,” she recalled.

WINS FOR WESTLAND WORKERS

The firings did not halt unionization efforts among the library’s remaining staff. Employees were mailed ballots in April, and on April 26, library workers voted 27-5 to unionize with SEIU, which represents nearly 1.9 million workers in the United States and Canada.

The board convened a special meeting May 19, where it elected to hire an independent attorney who would communicate with the city attorney on the board’s behalf. In a Hometown Life article on May 23, Neal stated his wish that the board—which is selected by the mayor and approved by city council—operate independently under library law. In the same article, he referenced the fact that Wild is running for his third term—his first time  with opposition. “I think the mayor would like for this to all be behind him, naturally, in an election year,” Neal said.

Between mid-May and early June, three board members resigned—one because he was moving, but at least one other because he disagreed with the board’s actions. At a closed board meeting it was decided to decrease the library’s millage from .99 to .5 mils, though it had already been voted into place five years ago, and to halt plans for the expansion.

On June 14, Neal and library board vice president Antoinette Martin resigned. “I the mayor finally realized it was going to be a very big problem…if he did not finally take action about the last two board members,” Cooper told LJ. “I’m not sure what he said to them but he got them to resign.” Collins resigned as well.

The following day, the five librarians were offered their jobs back. Two of the three decided not to return: Perez had returned to school for social work and Wolak had accepted another job offer. SEIU helped Dover-Taylor, Hansard, and Tharp negotiate their Unfair Labor Practice claim for back pay, and they returned to their jobs on July 17.

The newly hired associate librarians remain in place as well, and a new head of reference, Jennifer Roth, whom Collins hired shortly before her resignation. West told the Detroit Free Press that, after an initial interruption, most programs had resumed. “While we had all of this turmoil going…the employees stepped up, and they really did a good job of making sure the public didn’t feel a drop in service,” added Wild.

STARTING OVER

On July 27 Wild announced five prospective new board members from a field of 14 applicants, with selection help from The Library Network (TLN), the southeast Michigan public library cooperative. The mayor’s picks are Julie Laliberte, outgoing director of the Northville District Library, MI; Gail Nicholson, who works in car cruises and other promotions; Kathryn Sample, who works in finance for the City of Wayne, MI; James Higgins Jr., whose background is in Ford Motor Company management; and Gary Chappell, a retired longtime Westland resident and former manager at Farmer Jack supermarkets; they are scheduled to be confirmed at the August 7 city council meeting.

Once in place, the board will move forward on the selection of a new director, which Wild expects will take up to five months. But first, said Wild, he hopes they can receive board training from TLN. Several librarians have expressed hopes that Kwik, a veteran of the library who was well liked and was long considered the “go-to person” on staff, according to Dover-Taylor, will apply for the position. “She was the person that people wanted to talk to,” Dover-Taylor told LJ. “She created a lot of bonds with people through her hard work and dedication.”

The new board, said West, will “have to hit the ground running.” But she feels that even with the disruptions of the past four months, library operations are going smoothly. “The staff have been wonderful,” she told LJ. “They’re very cooperative.” And the mayor has been supportive as well; she feels that there is currently “great respect on both sides.”

Wild, for his part, looks at recent events as an opportunity for positive change. “I think it gives us a chance to do a reset and look at the way we do things, look at the type of candidates that we look for as far as directors, and maybe look for different skill sets in our library board members,” he told LJ. “It’s giving us the chance to reconnect with [TLN] and with the state library as well. So at the end of the day I think it’s a good opportunity for us to move the library in a new direction.”

Cooper is proud of the involved and informed community who supported the librarians and protested the board’s decision. “We did not give up,” she noted. Cooper recently sent out surveys on library issues to the mayor and all council candidates so that she can put together a voting guide for Westland residents this fall.

As for the state of the library going forward, “I’m hopeful,” said Dover-Taylor. “I think it’s going to take a while to rebuild. I’m trying to keep my expectations low and just do some good work, and hopefully in the next year or so we can start moving forward in a positive direction.”

Transparency will be critical, she added, “I hope that we’re able to find a way to tell the story of what happened to the public, to restore trust in the library. And I think to do that we have to be honest about what went on.”

Lisa Peet About Lisa Peet

Lisa Peet is Associate Editor, News for Library Journal.

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Comments

  1. Jessamyn says:

    Lisa you did a really good job outlining what has been a really complicated and fractious process. I am very happy for the reinstated librarians and sorry this all had to happen in the first place. Congrats to the librarians and the union!

  2. This comment was removed because it violated LJ’s comment policy.

  3. Congratulations to Westland PL’s librarians, supporters, and all those who have made a commitment to improving its administrative direction.

    The complex issues they faced are all too common — thanks for bringing stories like this to the fore.

  4. Was/Is the board governing or advisory?

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