The Berkeley City Council voted Tuesday, May 16, to appoint John Selawsky to the Board of Library Trustees. Photo: Emilie Raguso

Deciding that experience trumps procedure, the Berkeley City Council on Tuesday night appointed Rent Board Commissioner John Selawsky to the Board of Library Trustees rather than Libby Hadzima Perkins, an attorney that the board had recommended.

The 6-0-3 vote, with council members Lori Droste, Susan Wengraf and Linda Maio abstaining, came after a parliamentary procedure that some characterized as unfair, back-and forth discussions about the democratic process, the mess the library has been in, and the role and responsibility council has in overseeing a beloved institution. Along the way, there were suggestions that Perkins had only been recommended because she was female and young — reasons not seen as being as valid as appointing someone because they brought diversity to an institution.

It was a long night at the City Council with 18 action items on the agenda, many of them weighty. (In fact, the City Council adjourned at 12:30 a.m. Wednesday in the middle of a debate about renewing the city’s contract with Urban Shield.) The council discussion on the BOLT vacancy took up more than an hour.

Mayor Jesse Arreguín started the discussion by calling for the consideration of item 60, his nomination of Selawsky to the board. Arreguín did not allow item 61, Perkins’ nomination, to be considered at the same time. A number of speakers from the public, as well as Droste, Maio and Wengraf, complained, with one man stating that the council was “using a procedural method to silence the strong support you have for the next candidate.”

After more than 40 minutes of public comment, Arreguín withdrew his motion to just consider Selawsky’s nomination, allowing the council to consider both nominees at once.

In the end, it was not even close. Just as Mayor Tom Bates could rely on his 6 to 3 majority, Arreguín has his own 6 to 3 majority that can mostly be counted on to pass measures he supports. Council members Ben Bartlett, Kate Harrison, Sophie Hahn, Kriss Worthington and Cheryl Davila joined Arreguín in supporting Selawsky. The majority also defeated motions to appoint Perkins and to send the issue back to the library board.

The main union representing the library workers, SEIU Local 1021, also supported Selawsky, according to Andrea Mullarky, a shop steward. That support may have played a role in the council’s decision, too.

Hahn, while saying Perkins has many fine qualities, pointed out that Selawsky had been elected citywide four times, which proves he has broad community support. He was elected three times to the Berkeley Unified School Board and currently serves as chair of the Rent Board.

“I care deeply about this community,” Selawsky said during public comment. “I care deeply about kids and families and immigrant communities, communities of color. I care about workers and worker rights… I have also been a collaborator; able to work with people… I will work with the community to heal. We need to move forward in this library board. There’s been too much conflict. We need to address it and clear it up.”

The appointment of Selawsky to the BOLT is one more step in overturning more than 120 years of precedent in which the board has nominated new members and council has endorsed those selections.

The start of this change came in the spring when the BOLT solicited nominees to replace the retiring Winston Burton. Just as the board nominated Judy Hunt, who falls more into the Bates camp than the Arreguín camp, Worthington introduced a motion for a “Fresh Start” for the library board. He recommended removing President Julie Holcomb and Vice-President Jim Novosel, blaming them for low employee morale, a seemingly endless investigation into employees who complained publicly about library procedures, the secret weeding of too many books at the library, the selection of a director who was not a good fit for Berkeley, and delays in erecting a new sign adding the name Tarea Hall Pittman to the South Branch library.

On April 4, the City Council voted to remove Holcomb and Novosel. They also voted to appoint Hunt, who had been recommended by the library board, and Diane Davenport, who had applied for the BOLT but who was not recommended.

At that time the City Council said it did not “intend to set a precedent of escalating City Council involvement in day-to-day operations of the Berkeley Public Library.”

For the trio of Droste, Maio and Wengraf, the recent actions of the City Council feel like meddling, and they said repeatedly Tuesday night that the moves undermine the democratic nature of the library.

“I don’t understand the justification for not affirming the BOLT board recommendation (to appoint Perkins) and I would like to ask Mayor Arreguín to tell us why he put forth #60?” said Wengraf. “Why wouldn’t you affirm the BOLT board recommendation of a 3-to-1 vote?”

Arreguín was silent for a moment and then reiterated the position he has taken all along: he wanted to appoint Selawsky to the board because he was supremely qualified. Earlier in the meeting, he had said: “No promises were made to any particular candidate.”

“The issue is the process,” said Wengraf, pushing Arreguín for a more complete answer. “The BOLT board affirmed Libby 3 to 1. Why is the council, given we have a very qualified candidate, not accepting that vote? I would like an answer.”

Arreguín: “I don’t want to get into a debate…you have the [answer].”

Wengraf: “So there is no substantive answer.”

Arreguín: “The answer is the charter does not require that we have to rubber stamp anyone the BOLT board recommends. We get to decide.”

Wengraf: “Yes, but …. It has never happened in the history of the library that the Council has overruled the BOLT vote. This is a first. It is a terrible precedent to set…It’s meddling… this whole process is destructive to the future of the library.”

Later, Wengraf added: “I am disappointed in the way the process has been conducted.”

Both Arreguín and Hahn, who sits on the BOLT, bristled at the suggestion that politics was driving their support of Selawsky rather than his experience.

“For you to throw accusations like that is not acceptable,” Arreguín replied to Wengraf.

Watch Berkeleyside’s live Twitter streaming of part of the City Council discussion:

Hahn said selecting Selawsky rather than Perkins was not out of step with the character of the BOLT, which was a political body. After a lengthy description of the failings of the previous BOLT board, Hahn said it was “the most political and manipulative board,” she had ever served on.

“This is a board that has been extremely political in the past and the idea that it is some kind of innocent playground where pure people with no complex political or backroom dealing carry on some sort of high-level, above-it-all process is just a total misrepresentation of my experience on that board,” said Hahn. “The idea that this board has been apolitical and what is going on now is a politicization is basically fake news.”

Hahn also challenged those who said Selawsky’s appointment was going outside parliamentary rules. She said the nomination of Perkins also did this because the BOLT voted on the existing pool of applications, people who had submitted their names upon Burton’s retirement, rather than opening up the process all over again.

“So everybody who cares about technicalities, about process, you’re going to be sorely disappointed because BOLT’s process was irregular,” said Hahn.


Before the final vote, Droste had said not affirming Perkins would be a blow to many young people, and young women in particular, who were interested in participating in politics. “This sends a horrible message to people who want to get involved,” she said.

Worthington challenged that rationale. He said he had appointed more young people, more minorities, more transsexuals and more students to city commissions than any other council person, and “I am 100% opposed to appointing someone because they are young and they are a woman,” he said. “That is the wrong message to send to the people of Berkeley.”

The most important criteria for choosing is to find someone who can handle the “crisis at the library,” said Worthington.

Abigail Franklin, a BOLT member, said Perkins was selected because of her qualifications, not because she is young or female.

“We picked Libby because she is the most qualified candidate,” said Franklin. “To say we picked her because she is a woman in insulting, insulting to me and other women.”

Selawsky will serve until May 2020. Franklin’s term ends at the end of 2017, and many council members, including those who supported Selawsky, suggested Perkins should apply for that opening.

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...