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Former Basalt library director won’t get severance

BASALT – The Basalt Regional Library District will not give the library’s former director a severance payment, the board of trustees announced Tuesday at a special meeting.

Kristen Becker claimed she was owed $26,232.40 in severance pay when she parted ways with the library Dec. 15. Becker and the board of trustees traded counterproposals after the initial demand, but no deal was struck. The district’s earlier offers have been removed.

“We have no negotiations with Ms. Becker’s attorney,” said David Smith, attorney for the library district. “We’re not offering anything.”

“We are very firm in this position,” said Judy Royer, president of the board of trustees. “All severance offers are off the table right now.”

Becker’s departure came after the trustees voted to reduce her housing allowance by $10,000 annually in 2012 and reduce her health-insurance benefits. Becker said she was exercising a provision in her contract that allowed her to consider herself terminated if the board adjusted her compensation by a greater percentage than other employees.

The district didn’t necessarily agree that Becker’s departure was a termination. The official notice of Tuesday’s meeting labeled her departure a “resignation.”

Becker, who headed the library for 2 1/2 years, moved back to her native Kansas. She couldn’t be reached for comment Tuesday. She apparently will have to take legal action if she continues to pursue the severance pay.

While a chapter in the Becker saga is closed, the board of trustees and its critics are rewriting the book on small-town political warfare. The critics accused the trustees of bungling their responsibilities of oversight – from Becker’s expenditures to nuts-and-bolts decisions about library operations.

Group members Linda Crossland, Carolyn Kane and Valerie Welch sent a letter to the Pitkin and Eagle county commissioners and Basalt Town Council on Thursday that outline a number of grievances about the library trustees.

“We feel that this Board of Trustees has shown a pattern of disregard for its responsibility, disregard for legal process and concealment of open framework for conducting public business,” the concluding paragraph of the letter states.

The letter was sent to the three political bodies because they will appoint four of the seven positions on the board by March.

A second letter from other concerned residents asked for the resignation of all trustees.

Some of the library trustees retaliated with criticism as fierce as they received. Royer told the critics the board was working hard to resolve issues they helped uncover, such as inadequate recording of expenditures by the former executive director.

“We welcome your constructive suggestions, but we do not welcome your petty interference with the day-to-day running of this building,” Royer told the critics. “We are on it. We understand your frustrations of the past. That was then – this is now. Dealing with the constant interruption by your group is becoming intolerable.”

Crossland, a leader of the Supporters of the Library, responded that the trustees are public officials that should count on scrutiny by the public.

“If you need to develop a thicker skin, so be it,” she said.

At the heart of the critics’ complaints is concern about Becker’s expenditures on library credit cards. The group is poring over her expenses in 2010 and 2011 and compiling a list of questions it wants the district to explore. Crossland said the chore is difficult because receipts were rarely filed and there wasn’t much documentation of how the expenses related to library business.

The trustees have hired an auditor to look over Becker’s spending. The auditor was going over records Tuesday, and the trustees anticipated her services would be needed for half of Wednesday at a cost of $2,000 per day.

The Supporters of the Library have lobbied the trustees not to pay Becker any severance until spending issues were investigated. They demanded Tuesday that the trustees hire an impartial party to perform a “forensic audit” of the library’s finances over the past two years. That detailed audit would go over every transaction, so it would be much more detailed than the audit already commissioned.

Trustee Taylor Liebmann questioned the wisdom of potentially spending $50,000 to $75,000 of taxpayer funds on the forensic study when there is no evidence that Becker improperly used credit cards or other library funds.

The issue of that broader study was unresolved and might be a first critical decision facing a board that will have a new majority by March.

The Basalt Regional Library District’s board of trustees is imploding in the face of criticism.

One member of the seven-person board resigned Tuesday, another withdrew her application to be reappointed, and a third said he can’t wait to end his term later this month.

The comments came at a special meeting Tuesday that followed six months of acrimony between some trustees and a group called Supporters of the Library. Some of the group’s members called for all seven trustees to resign. Another faction wrote a scathing letter to local officials taking the trustees to task for their handling of library functions.

Trustee Steve Rittvo resigned effective noon Tuesday even though he had 2 1/2 years remaining on his term.

“Recent actions by a number of community members have impacted my professional activities and my resignation is made under the advice of my counsel,” his letter of resignation said. He didn’t elaborate on the reasons.

Before he departed, Rittvo submitted a check for $2,000 for library staff development. Staff development was reduced in the fall budget. Rittvo said at that time he would personally contribute to the fund because he felt it was important.

Rittvo’s resignation creates four openings on the board. The library district is accepting applications and will interview candidates Feb. 13. They will recommend appointees to the Pitkin and Eagle county commissioners as well as the Basalt Town Council. The elected boards have the ultimate say on appointments.

Trustee Christine Tinner announced that she was withdrawing her application to remain on the board for reasons she didn’t specify. She said last week she was interested in returning. That preceded the latest salvo of criticism from Supporters of the Library.

Trustee Taylor Liebmann said he anticipates his term expiring on Feb. 13. He isn’t seeking reappointment.

“I look forward to my last meeting,” he said. “Life is too short.”

Liebmann has been the most outspoken among the trustees in defense of the former library executive director. He said Tuesday the library is a wonderful facility that the trustees and critics should be trying to improve through cooperation. He claimed Supporters of the Library has “refocused its ire” after it helped drive out the executive director.

Supporters of the Library isn’t just taking shots from outside. It is vowing to get involved in governing the library. Group members Carolyn Kane, Helene Slansky and Cil Klamper have applied or will apply, according to Linda Crossland, an organizer of the group. Crossland said she also is pondering a possible application.

Applications are due by 5 p.m. Friday. An online application is available at http://www.basaltrld.org under the “Join Our Board!” heading.

Eleven people have applied so far, but one was eliminated for living outside the library district. One applicant must live in Pitkin County, one in Basalt and two in Eagle County.

scondon@aspentimes.com


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