A number of community members, librarians, and former library staff held a rally March 16 to call for the removal of some members of the library board. Photo: Tracey Taylor

City Councilman Kriss Worthington, Mayor Jesse Arreguín and two other City Council members are pushing to reconstitute the Board of Library Trustees (BOLT) and replace two of its members because they believe the existing entity has made a number of grievous missteps that have led to low employee morale and may have opened the city up to potential lawsuits.

Worthington and Arreguín, along with Ben Bartlett and Cheryl Davila, are putting forth a measure for the April 4 council meeting. The resolution calls for a “fresh start” and “reconstitution” of the Library Board either by asking for the resignations of President Julie Holcomb and Vice President Jim Novosel, or, “if not forthcoming, then [their] removal and replacement.” Worthington’s original plan, submitted to the Agenda Committee, had been to also call for the resignation of Abigail Franklin, but he has since rescinded that provision. A fourth BOLT member, Winston Burton, is scheduled to retire March 23.

The unprecedented measure may almost be a fait accompli, as the City Charter says library trustees can be removed by a vote of five City Council members. City Councilwoman Sophie Hahn, who is the new City Council representative on BOLT, has stated that she thinks the board would benefit from new leadership.*

“There’s been a series of unfortunate, outrageous, illegal proposals, inappropriate, disrespectful activities,” said Worthington. “It’s years worth of violations of policies, law, and protocol that have been building up.”

He cited as reasons to remove the two board members the long delay in installing a new sign renaming one branch the Tarea Hall Pittman/South Branch Library; a 10-month-long amorphous investigation into certain library employees; and what he termed a board election process that “has developed from fiasco to farce.”

The Board of Library Trustees, l to r: Jim Novosel, Abigail Franklin, Winston Burton, Julie Holcomb and Sophie Hahn. Photo: Berkeley Public Library

However, the targeted BOLT members and their allies believe the current council is exaggerating the library’s issues and using the cover of library employee dissatisfaction to purge its political opponents. Holcomb and Novosel have been long-time supporters or allies of former City Councilman Laurie Capitelli, who lost his bid for mayor to Arreguín in November 2016. Novosel also challenged Arreguín in 2010 in a race for the District 4 City Council seat and lost.

“It’s a complete political witch hunt,” said Novosel. “It’s a complete cleansing of people who aren’t part of the new political order in Berkeley.”

All of the targeted BOLT members said they will not resign. Neither Holcomb nor Franklin wanted to go on the record about the controversy.

The board of the Berkeley Public Library Foundation, an independent nonprofit that has raised $8 million for the library in the past 20 years, is also concerned about Worthington’s proposal. The foundation is worried that the measure to recall, or force the resignations of, two members will undermine faith in the library and lead to less financial support.

“We are deeply concerned about any politicization of an institution that is meant to be independent,” said Rachel Anderson, the president of the foundation board. “Decades ago our city leaders made this wise decision. They put distance between political influence and the library’s governance. To politicize the library board would have a negative impact on the library’s reputation.”

In a letter sent March 18 from the entire foundation board, the foundation wrote: “The attempts to remove and replace Library Trustees midterm risks further destabilizing the Library. We fear this would have a negative impact on the Library’s reputation and on the future of both public funding and the Foundation’s efforts to raise private support from Berkeley’s residents.”

Others are concerned that a “reconstitution” of BOLT might drive away the recently hired top library staff, making it difficult to attract competent candidates. There has been a cloud over the departure of two of the last three library directors. Heidi Dolamore was hired as library director in September and Elliot Warren only came on as the deputy director in February.

“We’re setting the stage not to be able to hire a library director in the future,” said Councilwoman Susan Wengraf. “Who is going to want to come here and be the library director?”

Worthington has repeatedly said he wants Dolamore to stay.

Many library staff and community members support Worthington’s proposal, however, stating that they think the BOLT members are unresponsive to the community’s needs. A group of former librarians, community supporters, and some staff held a rally on Thursday March 16 outside the Central Branch that called for the ouster of BOLT.

“A lot of people have lost faith in the BOLT because it doesn’t do anything,” said one long-time library staffer who asked not to be named. “When staff brings up issues, they look off into the distance and they completely ignore what has been said. Then they carry on with their agenda – items the director has prepared.”

This comment seems to get to the heart of the controversy: just how much authority does BOLT have over the inner workings of the library? BOLT members believe their authority is limited; their main function is to set overall policy, hire a director and let him or her run the institution. Some of the BOLT members say they are being blamed for issues over which they have no control as it is up to the library director to resolve personnel and facilities issues.

BOLT critics disagree and say the board should, and must, intervene to assure the library is run well and staff is heard.

“We need a new board of directors, basically,” said Charles Austin, the South Berkeley resident who led the push to rename the South Branch in honor of Pittman, a radio host and longtime civil-rights leader.

Berkeley Public Library’s Central Branch in downtown Berkeley. Photo: Nancy Rubin

The origins of the Berkeley Public Library and the Board of Library Trustees

The way the public library became part of Berkeley may be part of the issue, as the library board has always been a quasi-independent body, even though the City Council has the right to appoint and relieve members of their positions. In fact, as Worthington points out, the Library Board has more power and independence than any of Berkeley’s commissions.

The first circulating library in the town of Berkeley was The Free Reading Room, which opened March 18, 1882, in a building on Shattuck and University avenues, according to the 1931 book, Berkeley’s First Public Library, by William Warren Ferrier. It was stocked with 54 books, daily newspapers, the New York Weekly Tribune, Harper’s magazine and Century magazine. The reading room shut down six months later.

It would take another 11 years to bring a library to Berkeley. In February 1893, the Holmes Public Library opened its doors in the Shattuck Block. A group of men had formed the library association and paid $1 a month to keep it going. Other patrons paid $1 a year for the right to take out books. The Women’s Christian Temperance Union donated 250 books and the library was open from 2 p.m. to 10 p.m. daily.

From the start, the library was a hit and soon it was drawing 200 visitors a day. The library’s popularity – and calls to open branches in West Berkeley and the Lorin District, promoted a move to hand over the Holmes Public Library to Berkeley. The town agreed to levy a library tax. On Dec. 11, 1895, Berkeley took over the library and appointed a board of directors to oversee its operations, according to Ferrier. This is the first mention of a BOLT board. Francis K. Shattuck was elected president of the board.

In 1896, the name of the Holmes Public Library was changed to the Berkeley Public Library. Rosa Shattuck, Francis K. Shattuck’s widow, eventually donated a lot on Kittredge Street and Shattuck Avenue worth $30,000 to the town of Berkeley for a new library building, which is known as the Central Branch today. Andrew Carnegie donated $40,000 to construct the building.

The town of Berkeley eventually became the city of Berkeley and, in 1923, it adopted a City Manager form of government. The charter and municipal code laid out the structure of BOLT and its responsibilities. It is a five-member board, with one member coming from the City Council. The members are appointed by the Council and “shall be subject to removal from the board at the pleasure of the City Council, prior to the expiration of the term for which they were appointed,” according to the Berkeley Municipal Code, section 3.04.010. In practice, BOLT has often chosen new board members and sent the nominations to the City Council for approval.

The early BOLT boards were given wide discretion over the internal operations of the library – and this authority now seems to be at the center of the question over whether BOLT has been sufficiently responsive to community concerns. The Municipal Code reads that BOLT shall have the power:

  • To make and enforce all rules, regulations, and bylaws necessary for the administration, government and protection of such library, and all property belonging thereto or that may be loaned, devised, bequeathed or donated to the same;
  • To administer any trust declared or created for such library and to provide memorial tablets and niches to perpetuate the memory of those persons who may make valuable donations thereto;
  • To purchase necessary books, journals, publications and other supplies and personal property;
  • To appoint officers and employees of the library, either full-time or part-time, as may be necessary to adequately conduct the business of the library, said officers and employees to hold office at the pleasure of the board; to fix the salaries and wages thereof within the salary ranges established by resolution of the City Council, and to prescribe the duties and powers of such officers and employees.

Clearly, some of those provisions are out of date. BOLT plays no role in buying books. Union contracts now take precedence over BOLT’s ability to set wages. The board no longer oversees the creation of niches where donors can be commemorated.

And, in 2007, BOLT passed a resolution formally handing over the day-to-day responsibility of library operations to the director, who at that time was Donna Corbeil.

“It is not uncommon for legislative bodies responsible for substantial organizations to rely on their employees to do a great deal of the actual work of the organization,” City Attorney Zach Cowan wrote in an email to Berkeleyside. Cowan would not speak directly to how he has advised BOLT about how much authority members hold to run the actual operations of the library. He said that would be a breach of attorney-client privilege.

As controversies have arisen, many BOLT members believed they had to take a hands-off approach and let the library director handle the issues. (The handling of many issues has been further complicated by the fact there were only acting directors from the time Jeff Scott resigned in August 2015 until Dolamore came on board at the end of September 2016.) Many people in the community, however, believe BOLT should be a hands-on board.

“I do not believe anyone on the board should get involved with an individual [staff] matter, but the board is …. not addressing systematic policy problems,” said Worthington.

Controversy is nothing new at the Berkeley Public Library

Worthington’s measure outlines three current areas of controversy at the library — issues he considers so grave that the board needs to be changed. But various BOLT members, who did not want to be quoted, said the problems did not begin with them. The Berkeley Public Library has been embroiled in numerous conflicts over the years.

For example, in 2005, many community members protested the then head of the library Jackie Griffin’s plan to automate check-outs by installing computerized RFID chips in books. There were rallies and protests against this plan, in part because the new technology would lead to a reduction in library staff and in part because of privacy concerns. The controversy eventually led to Griffin’s departure.

More recently, Berkeleyside reported on March 2 that numerous library staffers said there was an atmosphere of suspicion and distrust at the library. One main cause stemmed from an investigation launched in April 2016 by then Interim Library Director Beth Pollard into the actions of several employees. Pollard never publicly articulated what an outside investigator was looking into, and only told those being investigated that it was for “potential misconduct.” But it appeared to center on various librarians who used their own library cards, or in one case, the library card of a family member, to check out numerous books. Many librarians have admitted doing this as a way to circumvent elements of the library’s weeding process — which itself triggered a huge controversy in recent years. The library administration investigated whether those actions were illegal.

When Dolamore took over in September, she inherited the investigation and the discontent it was causing. While she told BOLT the investigation had been completed in January, she did not until last week inform the five staff members under investigation — Berkeleyside had originally been told by staff that seven were being examined — that it had concluded. The ACLU expressed concern in December about the length of the probe. Dolamore responded to that letter in a letter of her own on March 14. She said that she also thought the investigation had taken too long and wrote that five employees had been investigated. Three had been cleared of any violations, but two were found to have committed minor violations of library policy, according to Dolamore’s letter.

Critics of BOLT have said that those investigated were some of the whistleblowers who revealed that the library, under former director Jeff Scott, was more aggressively tossing books than he admitted publicly. (He originally said around 2,200 books were weeded; the final number was around 39,000). They said the ambiguous nature of the investigation, the tone of the attorney who questioned the staff, and the length of the investigation helped create an atmosphere of fear at the library. Numerous staffers appeared at a BOLT meeting to ask the board to intervene and stop targeting the so-called whistleblowers. But that was not something the board could do, said Novosel.

“We can’t enter into personnel matters,” he said. “The City Attorney told me that.”

BOLT’s inability, or reluctance, to step into the issue angered many library staff.

The fact that BOLT could not respond to obvious staff dissatisfaction made the public feel “extremely disrespected,” said Worthington. That attitude could open the city up to lawsuits, he said.

One librarian, who asked not to be named, said there is a small, core group of staffers who seem to complain about everything. Some of them were the targets of the investigation. “I’m not saying the administration hasn’t made errors, particularly in their failure to rein in a certain manager, but the reaction (in the broadest possible picture) far outweighs the errors,” she said.

In the future, this will be the sign at the Tarea Hall Pittman South Branch Library. Photo: City of Berkeley

Renaming the South Branch

In 2014, Charles Austin, a South Berkeley resident, suggested to BOLT that the South Branch be renamed in honor of Pittman, a long-time resident, radio host and civil-rights leader. BOLT originally denied the request, citing a policy against naming the libraries after people. But after Austin collected 2,000 signatures, and after the City Council passed a measure recommending the branch be renamed, BOLT voted in May 2015 to change the name.

BOLT formed an ad hoc committee with community members to design a new sign and submitted the plans to Berkeley in February 2016. But no permanent signage has gone up yet on the Martin Luther King Jr. Way side of the library, although there has been a banner with Pittman’s name hanging over the entrance on Russell. A number of community activists believe the delay shows a lack of respect for Berkeley’s African American community. They have also been frustrated by BOLT’s silence about what is going on. “That’s a very long time and there has been no communication (about it),” said Gregory Daniel, who has been working with Austin to get the sign put up. Communication improved 100% after Dolamore started in September, said Daniel. She had two meetings with community members in two weeks, he said, and explained the city delay. But people are still frustrated by the absence of the sign.

Novosel said the hold-up is not reluctance on the part of BOLT to honor Pittman, but rather city law. The proposed signage did not comply with Berkeley’s sign ordinance for neighborhoods zoned R-2, so it was rejected, he said.

Austin said Novosel, who is an architect and a planning commissioner, should have realized the proposed sign did not conform with the law and taken pre-emptive action to make sure the city issued a variance. “It’s been two years at least since BOLT approved the naming,” he said. “He should have known about the regulations and processes about how to get that sign up…. He has been resistant to renaming the library.”

In a bid to remove the roadblocks, Hahn is set to introduce a measure to council March 28 that will amend the Berkeley Municipal Code to allow the library to install a sign on MLK Jr. Way.

Electing a new president and vice president of BOLT

Worthington cites issues with electing a new president and vice president of BOLT as one of the reasons Holcomb and Novosel should be removed. In November, BOLT held an election for board officers in which Holcomb was re-elected president and Novosel was re-elected VP. The only other BOLT member present was Winston Burton, as Franklin and then-member Darryl Moore, the former West Berkeley councilman, were absent. The final vote for Holcomb for president was 2 to 1, with Burton voting no. The final vote for Novosel for vice president was 2 to 0 to 1, with Burton abstaining. The city attorney later told BOLT the election was invalid since no candidate received three votes.

The next two times BOLT tried to elect a president and VP, in January and February, the process involved a complex set of rules and votes that Worthington says are further proof BOLT does not function well. The votes also resulted in obvious discord between Hahn and Holcomb. In January, Dolamore, acting as secretary, announced BOLT would follow Robert’s Rules of Order to elect new leadership. Hahn objected to the way the rules were not announced, nor outlined in the agenda ahead of time. She was particularly concerned that Dolamore’s interpretation of the rules meant a “no” vote would not be recorded. Instead, whoever got the most votes would be elected by acclamation, said Dolamore.

Hahn was not supportive of Holcomb’s nomination and she tried to nominate Franklin, who declined. When Hahn later tried to nominate Burton, Dolamore told her that, under the rules, she could not nominate two people. Hahn was concerned that Dolamore had not informed her of this rule. She tried to withdraw her nomination of Franklin to substitute Burton but was told she could not do that. Hahn said she did not think the process was fair and would walk out if the rules were going to have “her be considered to have claimed something I am not comfortable with” (i.e. the vote would record that Holcomb was elected by acclamation and not record Hahn’s negative vote). Franklin suggested that the tone in the room had turned negative and suggested the vote be put off. Holcomb agreed to bring it up at a future meeting.

The issue came up again in February. Holcomb announced that, according to Robert’s Rules of Order, whoever was nominated first and got three votes was elected. If there were multiple nominees, Dolamore had suggested there be a paper ballot. Hahn expressed concern about the idea of electing someone by acclamation. She put forward a substitute motion to have the votes recorded. “Regardless of how many nominees we have, I would request that each of us be able to have our vote recorded as affirmative, negative or abstaining.” Hahn’s substitute motion failed to pass.

Hahn then left the meeting, saying: “I need to be out of the room … you can go on.”

Novosel then nominated Holcomb to be BOLT president. Franklin seconded the motion and Holcomb was re-elected 3-0. (Burton was absent.) Novosel was then re-elected vice president.

Hahn later told Berkeleyside she found BOLT uninterested in reaching consensus, and preferred to push through a majority view.

In his measure, Worthington said the BOLT board violated the city charter by voting by acclamation instead of recording everyone’s votes. The Municipal Code section 3.04 states: “The Board of Library Trustees, by a majority vote of all its members, as herein provided, to be recorded in the minutes with the ayes and noes at length whenever there is a division.” BOLT cannot willy-nilly rewrite a law adopted by the voters of Berkeley, he said. And suggesting they use a paper ballot was a proposal to violate state law that mandates a verbal vote. Also, BOLT changed the terms of the voting procedures without notice. He pointed out that, in the November votes, members’ ayes and nays were recorded, yet that was not permitted under the Robert’s Rules of Orders imposed at the January meeting. Worthington said this inconsistency was troubling and was grounds for removal.

Who would step up to the BOLT board?

Worthington’s original measure also called for Franklin to resign or be recalled, but he has stepped back from that idea. He now wants her to stay, leaving her and Hahn with three vacancies if Holcomb and Novosel are forced off.

“As I looked at the library problems and reviewed the last few meetings, it impressed me that Abigail did not totally go along with the repeated, unannounced rule changes and supported getting clear information before voting,” said Worthington.

In March, BOLT voted 4-0-1, with Hahn abstaining, to recommend Judy Hunt, a former Rent Board commissioner, to fill the seat being vacated by Burton. Worthington says he does not support Hunt’s nomination and will not vote for her. He said he no longer believes politicians should sit on BOLT because it “politicizes” the board. For this reason, he would not support John Selawsky, a current Rent Board commissioner, either. Selawsky applied for Burton’s vacant seat.

Novosel said Worthington and Arreguín are opposed to Hunt because she ran against a Rent Board slate they supported. On that slate was Alejandro Soto-Vigil, Worthington’s former aide, and Arreguín’s current aide.

Worthington is putting forth a measure to appoint Diane Davenport, who worked at the library for 27 years, and Jeff Chang, a middle school librarian, to BOLT. Both applied for Burton’s seat. Davenport has been an outspoken critic of recent library policies, including the book weeding.

Although Worthington looks like he has the votes to “reconstitute” BOLT, Wengraf believes this is the wrong approach to the problem.

“It’s feeling very Trumpian to me,” she said. “It’s slash and burn… a coup d’état. I don’t want to do anything to hurt the library. This seems like a bunch of bad press me. What good is going to come out of all of this? Let’s not make the library a political football.”

City Councilwoman Lori Droste also questioned the severity of the path Worthington and others are pursuing. While she believes BOLT stumbled in its initial handling of how Scott responded to the book weeding controversy as well as in getting a new sign for the Tarea Hall Pittman/South Branch Library, those actions could be considered a difference of opinion, she said. There is no evidence of malfeasance or ill will on behalf of BOLT, so why should Holcomb and Novosel be tossed out before their terms expire in 2019? she said.

“I don’t know if terminating someone over a difference of opinion sets a good precedent,” said Droste. “It feels undemocratic to unilaterally dismiss (members) of the board.”

Wengraf wonders why Worthington hasn’t taken a more moderate approach and tried to mediate the problems. Worthington said he has. He said he has reached out numerous times to BOLT and urged the board to stop going after the whistleblowers, to treat the South Berkeley community better, and more. The period after Scott resigned over the book weeding should have been a time of reconciliation. Instead, the opposite has happened, said Worthington.

“We have been trying for over two years to fix these problems,” he said. “The problems are only getting worse.”

“We reluctantly conclude that a RECONSTITUTION of the board offers Berkeley a fresh start and a chance to resolve the longstanding problems by bringing fresh perspectives of new Board members without emotional defensiveness or intellectual baggage from past battles,” reads his measure.

*Editor’s note: After this story was published, Hahn contacted Berkeleyside to say it was not her recollection that she stated she unequivocally supported Worthington’s measure. “I don’t announce ahead of time how I am going to vote (unless it’s something I sponsored, of course),” Hahn wrote in an email. “I may have a predisposition, but I go to meetings with an open mind and listen to the public and to my colleagues.” Berkeleyside has updated the story.

Avatar photo

Frances Dinkelspiel, Berkeleyside and CItyside co-founder, is a journalist and author. Her first book, Towers of Gold: How One Jewish Immigrant Named Isaias Hellman...