Accusations fly at Basalt library board meeting
October 11, 2011
BASALT – Controversy has erupted at the Basalt Regional Library District, where several longtime supporters and volunteers are lashing out at some members of the board of trustees and executive director Kristen Becker over a long list of issues.
The tension between the group and the board was palpable during Monday’s trustees meeting at the 21,000-square-foot library, which opened in January 2010 at a cost of $11 million. The library is a state-of-the-art facility, functioning more like a community center with a music room and a technology center than a simple structure that lends out books for free.
But a 38 percent decrease in the district’s property tax revenues for 2012 has led to cuts in personnel, services and operating hours. Some of the critics at Monday’s meeting called for Becker’s ouster without directly mentioning her name. They said that at a time of severe budget trimming and economic uncertainty, her $105,000 salary, $30,000 housing stipend and added retirement benefits don’t make sense.
“Many of us here tonight are disgusted with so many things going on and not going on at the library at this time and the library board’s refusal to hear this from the constituency,” said Basalt resident Linda Crossland.
Crossland read a statement to the board that contained several grievances, some of which stem from a Sept. 6 executive session that the board and the district’s attorney attended. After that meeting, Liz Gremillion resigned from her position as president of the trustees. Gremillion, however, remains a board member and attended Monday’s meeting but did not comment on the situation.
“Disgust is a massive political force,” Crossland said, echoing a line she said she heard from the Occupy Wall Street movement. “There is disgust with the manner in which the board of trustees allows an employee, the executive director, to speak with great disrespect to the present board president, as well as to the former board president. The board has failed to make clear to the executive director that she is the employee and does not have the right to dictate to any member of the board in such an insubordinate manner.”
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The new board president, Judy Royer, did not attend Monday’s meeting. Becker did not respond to comments specifically pointed toward her, but did answer questions related to library operations and district policy.
Though accused of being uncommunicative, Becker has posted several comments in the “director’s corner” section of the district’s website. On that page, she lists her specific work hours and comments positively on suggestions at a recent community breakfast.
Reached by phone after the meeting, she offered a perspective on why people are singling her out for some of the issues at the library.
“It took a lot of time and effort to get this new building built,” she said. “People put their heart and soul into it. But with the economy declining, we can’t keep it open as much as we would like. I understand the frustration.”
One member of the group criticized Becker for attending numerous conferences and wondered whether they were actually mini-vacations “under the guise of professional development.” She said given that the district faces struggling finances, the director’s time would be better spent writing grants for additional staff and books.
David Jones, a former district employee, delivered to the trustees a 22-point list of reasons for terminating Becker.
“The [executive director] has failed to be the ‘Face of the Library.’ The perception has been that [Becker] strongly prefers to remain in her office and avoid contact with the patrons,” Jones wrote.
He also said that Becker has stated “that she does not read books, and by inference, does not relate to library patrons and their primary interest – books. The perception is that she is in the wrong job.”
Jones also alleged low morale among library employees, the result of Becker’s “fear-based management style.”
Becker said Jones, who was among six people laid off from the library in 2010 and this year, is not being honest. “Everything that is in that [list] is a lie,” she said.
Others complained that longtime library supporters were being shut out of the district’s decision-making process in favor of new blood. They also questioned more than $150,000 in credit-card expenditures, money Becker says was spent on library materials.
“A lot of mistruths are circulating that are not founded in facts,” Becker said. “Once the facts come to light, people will understand. I think the library is running very well. There’s a lot of misinformation in the community, and it’s getting people excited.”
She said it’s the negativity from the critics that has affected employee morale.
“Every staff person and volunteer who walks in the door every morning says, ‘Let’s make this the best library in the valley.’ I’m very open with people. The [critics] have never contacted me. I never got the opportunity to address their issues. Some of the things they were talking about at the meeting, I have no problem with.”
Becker said she began preparing for the likelihood of reduced property tax revenue last year by working with the board to create a reserve fund. With the difficult budget decisions that have been made, the board won’t have to dip into that emergency fund next year, she said.
Board member Christine Tinner implored the group to work positively with the trustees. She said the recent cutbacks will mean fiscal stability at the library through 2017 if the current rate of property tax revenue holds up over the next few years.
Tinner said it was “uncomfortable to sit here,” and asked the critics if they were just as uncomfortable.