Basalt library board urged to challenge ex-director’s severance demand
December 20, 2011
BASALT – A handful of midvalley residents urged the Basalt Regional Library’s board of directors Monday night to challenge the former executive director’s assertion that she should get a severance package after leaving her post last week.
Kristen Becker informed the district Thursday she was exercising an option to consider herself terminated because the board reduced her salary and benefits package for 2012 by a greater percentage than any other employee. She contends she is entitled to a severance payout of $26,232.40.
The library board met in a closed session for 30 minutes Monday with its attorney, David Smith, to discuss its position. The board didn’t take any formal action after emerging from the closed discussion. Smith and board President Judy Royer would only say that Smith will respond to Becker’s attorneys before the end of the month. If any further action is required by the library board, it will be through a vote at the Jan. 9 meeting, Smith said.
Before the board went into executive session, some audience members said the $26,232.40 could be better spent helping the library with its funding challenges. The library district will dip into its reserve fund for about $50,000 to balance its 2012 budget.
Basalt resident Bernie Grauer said Becker was “very well compensated” during nearly three years in the position. He said Smith should thoroughly review Becker’s employment contract to see if she is entitled to the severance pay. Grauer said he would personally prefer the funds be spent on expanding the library’s collections of books, music and DVDs.
Polly Pollard, of Basalt, urged the library board not to pay Becker any additional funds until it completes an audit of expense charges she made while in her post. If the audit indicates Becker made any inappropriate charges to the library district, she should be required to pay the funds back, Pollard said. If she refuses, “we should sue the pants off her if necessary,” she added.
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Basalt resident Anne Freedman questioned if Becker’s 2011 employment contract really contains the trigger for a severance package that Becker alleges. The library board voted earlier this month to offer Becker a contract for 2012 that reduces her housing allowance from $30,000 to $20,000 and reduces her health insurance benefits by roughly $8,000. Her pay was scheduled to remain at $105,000.
Freedman said she consulted with human-resources experts who said contracts typically only allow executives to consider themselves terminated if their pay is reduced, not their benefits.
If that’s the case, Becker negotiated herself a sweet deal when she was hired in March 2009. Smith told The Aspen Times that Becker’s severance provision was “broader” than what Freedman assumed.
The severance provision of her contract said Becker could deem herself terminated if her “base salary or other benefits” were reduced by a greater percentage than other employees’. The provision also spells out the severance package as two months of base salary, benefits and housing allowance.
Becker’s attorney – Karp, Neu, Hanlon, of Glenwood Springs – sent the library district a letter Thursday demanding the severance payment of $26,232.40.
While the library board as a whole kept its position close to the vest, member Taylor Liebmann took a couple of jabs at Becker’s critics. He said it is a sad day in the community when an effective executive director gets “ridden out of town” by a small group of vocal critics. He said the library is a “flagship of the midvalley” and that the facility has numerous wonderful programs that are being overshadowed by the fight over Becker. Liebmann said there were only a dozen or so critics out of more than 12,000 residents in the library district.
Liebmann has been a consistent defender of Becker’s performance. He said last night that Becker wasn’t “touchy feely,” and that got her cross-wise with some of the library patrons. He charged that the source of their discontent was not getting officially recognized for efforts to build the new library, which opened in January 2010.
Liebmann also suggested that a citizens group called Friends of the Library bullied the board into cutting Becker’s compensation package.
“Kristen was just a victim of some of the board decisions, such as the housing allowance,” Liebmann said.
Most of the 12 or so audience members bristled at Liebmann’s comments. (After the meeting, they contended their motivation was improving the library.) The tension at the meeting was eased when library board member Christine Tinner and audience member Carolyn Kane urged civility from all involved.
The library board made a couple of decisions that met the audience’s approval. They voted unanimously to make longtime library staff member Barbara Milnor the interim director. They also decided to wait until after three board positions are filled early next year to start a search for a permanent executive director.